Above- and belowground competition in Savanna systems.
The structure and composition of savanna vegetation is influenced by resource availability and disturbance. Grasses, a major component of savannas, influence this resource availability by competing directly with trees for light, water and soil nutrient resources. The direct causes of bush encroachment are not always apparent, but are commonly ascribed to overgrazing and consequent decreased grass competition. The interaction, both above and belowground, between tree and grass seedlings and the surrounding grass sward is dependant on many factors, such as soil depth, seedling species and sward composition. These factors, as well as the presence or absence of defoliation, in the form of grazing or fire dictate whether the system will remain in a transition state as savanna or move towards a stable woodland state. The major competitive effects experienced by the tree seedlings were dependant on grass species and nutrient level. A. nilotica was affected by aboveground competition while A. karroo was affected by belowground competition. E. capensis caused the greatest decrease in A. karroo plant biomass. Both E. capensis and H. hirta had large competitive effects on the aboveground biomass of A. nilotica, while S. africanus had the greatest effect on belowground biomass. Increasing nutrient availability resulted in an increase in the competitive effect exerted on A. karroo, while little to no change was seen in the competitive effect exerted on A. nilotica. Soil depth constrained plant size in both tree species. The intensity of belowground interactions on tree biomass was unaffected by soil depth, while aboveground competition had a significant effect on shallow soils. Belowground competition was also of greater importance than aboveground competition in dictating tree seedling height. Grass seedlings growing on all three soil depths differed in mean mass, with E. racemosa having the least mass and T. triandra having the greatest. Simulated grazing by cutting the surrounding sward resulted in biomass increases in all three grass species. Changes in savanna composition and structure are thus likely to be influenced by initial species composition and soil depth and soil nutrient composition. While grazing creates niches for grass seedling establishment, heavy grazing has been observed to increase grass seedling mortality. Encroachment is thus more likely to occur on intensively grazed shallow and deep soils than on medium depth soils. This highlights the importance of ensuring the grass sward remains vigorous by resting and monitoring stocking rates to ensure veld is not over-utilized. It is then possible to maintain some form of tree-grass coexistence at a level where available grazing is not compromised.
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