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Savanna woody plant community and trait responses to bottom-up and top-down controls, with a specific focus on the role of mammalian herbivory

Abstract : Savannas are complex ecosystems affected by several bottom-up (e.g. soil nutrient availability and rainfall) and top-down (e.g. fire and herbivory) drivers. However, the relative importance of bottom-up vs. top-down drivers in influencing savanna dynamics is still widely debated. Within the top-down (disturbance) category of drivers, the role of mammal browsers in particular in driving savanna functioning is still not well understood. Two approaches were adopted to determine the role of disturbance in savannas. Firstly, by using a comparative approach, I attempted to address the so-called ‘savanna problem’ by investigating how savanna woody plant community compositions and key plant traits relating to the leaves, stems, architecture, and defence are influenced by soil nutrient status, rainfall, fire and browsing. Sixteen sites were selected along gradients of these four drivers from savanna parks throughout South Africa and Zimbabwe. The dominant woody species (species that accounted for >80% of standing biomass) at each site were identified and sampled for the key leaf and stem traits relating to plant functioning, palatability, architecture, physical and chemical defences. Measurements were undertaken for each species in order to determine both meso-browser and mega browser impact. Transects were undertaken in order to determine the relative abundance and the effects of fire on each species at each site. Due to the current lack of standardized soil sampling protocols in the ecological literature, and uncertainty around the definition of what denotes a fertile or infertile soil, I propose a number of standardized protocols and sampled according to these established protocols in order to accurately determine the soil nutrient status at each site. Following this, the relationships between climatic variables and soil nutrients with both species means and community weighted means for eight key leaf traits were explored. Although some significant relationships were found between savanna leaf traits of woody plants, climate, soil nutrients and their interactions, these tended to be weaker than those found in meta-analyses. These broad-scale studies usually include sites from many biome types, many of which are from temperate regions where inherent levels of disturbance are typically much lower than in African savannas. The high levels of disturbance typically found in African savannas are thought to partially account for the high within site variability found in leaf traits and the weak relationships found between leaf traits, soil nutrients and rainfall. To assess the importance of resources vs. disturbance in savannas functioning, the effects of soil nutrients, rainfall, fire and both meso-browser and mega-browser impact on twenty savanna woody plant traits relating to plant palatability, chemical and structural defences were explored. Structural defences were found to be more strongly correlated with soil characteristics than chemical defences, while browser impact was found to be strongly correlated with structural defences but not with chemical defences. Actual browser utilisation tended to be more predictable for meso-browsers than mega-browsers. Secondly using an experimental approach, two sets of herbivore exclosures were utilized to directly test how mammal browsers influenced woody species distributions, abundance, population structure and plant traits relating to palatability and defence. The effects of three longterm herbivore exclosures in the Kruger National Park on savanna woody plant community compositions, population demographics and densities were determined. Browsers were found to have significant impacts on species distributions, densities and population structures by actively selecting for species with favourable traits, particularly higher leaf N. An interaction between browsers and fire which limited the recruitment of seedlings and saplings into larger size classes was also demonstrated… [etc]
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Benjamin Joseph Wigley. Savanna woody plant community and trait responses to bottom-up and top-down controls, with a specific focus on the role of mammalian herbivory. Ecology, environment. Université Claude Bernard - Lyon I, 2013. English. ⟨NNT : 2013LYO10133⟩. ⟨tel-01860360⟩

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