Date of Award:

5-2019

Document Type:

Dissertation

Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department:

Ecology

Committee

Kari E. Veblen

Committee

Nancy J. Huntly

Committee

Johan T. du Toit

Abstract

Globally, changes in plant community structure have occurred in ecosystems where humans have altered natural disturbance regimes. Many plants have adaptive life histories and morphological traits that have coevolved with fire and herbivory, which allows them to thrive despite repeated tissue losses. Therefore, altering the type, frequency, or severity of disturbance affects individual plant growth and competition among species. When these changes benefit or disadvantage different plant functional groups (i.e., grasses, shrubs, trees) it alters ecosystem structure and function. Understanding and predicting these vegetation changes, is critical for conservation and management of biodiversity, wildlife habitat, livestock forage, and water.

Savannas are characterized by the codominance of grasses and trees, but the proportion of tree cover responds dynamically to changes in precipitation, fire, and herbivory. These factors often cause a ‘demographic bottleneck,’ which delays transitions from sapling size (1 m). In this dissertation, I investigated several fire × herbivory interactions to gain a mechanistic understanding of sapling recruitment processes that ultimately affect savanna structure.

I made use of a long-term experiment that used semi-permeable fencing to manipulate presence and absence of different types of herbivores, to explore how fire and different combinations of domestic cattle, meso-wildlife, and megaherbivores (elephant and giraffe) affect sapling recruitment. First, I found clear evidence that a wide range of tree height classes resprout after being top-killed by fire, but they were all subsequently kept short by meso-wildlife browsing. Elephants played a key role in suppressing the largest resprouts after fire possibly because fire had reduced the presence of ant mutualists that defend the trees. Second, I found that in the absence of fire, cattle and wildlife indirectly affected saplings by altering competition with neighboring vegetation. Saplings competed with grass and trees during above-average rainfall years. Bare ground—a condition often caused by overgrazing—was positively associated with sapling growth. The highest sapling growth, however, occurred where large neighbor trees were absent, a condition maintained primarily by elephants browsing and damaging large neighbor trees. Finally, I found that saplings conditioned by pre-fire wildlife “browsing legacies” had high tolerance to combined fire and wildlife browsing. These results help explain how saplings tolerate repeated tissue loss to disturbance. Understanding how interactions between fire and herbivory affect sapling recruitment will help managers effectively use natural disturbance processes to manage savanna structure and function.

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