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Public Library of Science

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Our goal was to describe stomatal conductance (gs) and the site-scale environmental parameters that best predict gs in Kruger National Park (KNP), South Africa. Dominant grass and woody species were measured over two growing seasons in each of four study sites that represented the natural factorial combination of mean annual precipitation [wet (750 mm) or dry (450 mm)] and soil type (clay or sand) found in KNP. A machine-learning (random forest) model was used to describe gs as a function of plant type (species or functional group) and site-level environmental parameters (CO2, season, shortwave radiation, soil type, soil moisture, time of day, vapor pressure deficit and wind speed). The model explained 58% of the variance among 6,850 gs measurements. Species, or plant functional group, and shallow (0–20 cm) soil moisture had the greatest effect on gs. Atmospheric drivers and soil type were less important. When parameterized with three years of observed environmental data, the model estimated mean daytime growing season gs as 68 and 157 mmol m-2 sec-1 for grasses and woody plants, respectively. The model produced here could, for example, be used to estimate gs and evapotranspiration in KNP under varying climate conditions. Results from this field-based study highlight the role of species identity and shallow soil moisture as primary drivers of gs in savanna ecosystems of KNP.