The effects of burning and mowing on microclimate and soil resources and implications for species change in the southern tall grassveld of KwaZulu-Natal.
Ghebrehiwot, Habteab Mesghina.
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Promotion of a predictive understanding of plant community response to various forms, frequencies and seasons of disturbance, either through the direct physical effect on biota and or indirect effect on plants, through modification of microclimate and soil attributes is currently a major goal in plant ecology. In particular, the effect of disturbance on altering the ratio between available light and nutrients and their resultant effect on growth, shoot/root allocation, and thus community composition has gained considerable recognition in connection with the mechanisms of plant succession under a popular heading "the resource ratio hypothesis of plant succession". Contemporary and long-term (>50 years) burning and mowing experiments in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) provide important sites for investigation that in the mesic grasslands of KZN, community composition changes in response to the frequency, time and type of disturbances such as burning, mowing and veld fertilization. However, the relationship between disturbance-resource-plant traits and their interactive role in species change is virtually unknown. This study sought to improve understanding of mesic grassland dynamics in. KZN, using short-term pot and plot experiments. The principal objectives were: 1) by subjecting plants to different levels of resources viz. light, nutrients, water and cutting to determine the relative above and below-ground growth performances (biomass allocation) of species from contrasting habitat preference in KZN, which implies their relative competitive ability for limiting resources and tolerance to cutting, 2) by using a short-term (one-season period) burning and mowing experiment to determine the effect of different veld management practices on microclimate and availability of soil resources and their subsequent effect on plant growth performances, 3) testing the relative shade tolerance of representative species from contrasting habitat preferences, 4) by combining the outcomes from these experiments, to provide a general synthesis concerning species' response to disturbance/resource which further signifies species change. The hypothesis that competitive ability as a function of biomass allocation is fertility dependent was supported by a pot experiment. In low nutrient treatments short grass species that predominate infertile soils in KZN viz. Aristida funcifarmis and Themeda triandra attained double the shoot biomass, more than double root biomass, initiated more tillers and re-grew better (after cutting) than those inherently tall species that predominate fertile sites viz. Eragrostis curvula and Hyparrhenia hirta. In contrast, in high nutrient treatments, tall species attained far higher shoot biomass and grew taller in height. Interestingly, short species had a smaller shoot: root ratio than tall species, consistent with the prediction of the resource ratio hypothesis. However, no evidence was obtained suggesting that tall species were more shade tolerant than short species. A field-based shade experiment rather showed that, those species that initiate tillers below-ground viz. Aristida junciformis, Eragrostis curvula and Tristachya leucothrix were more shade tolerant than those species that initiate tillers above-ground viz. Hyparrhenia hirta and Themeda triandra. On the other hand, the effect of disturbance/resource relationship in influencing the growth (biomass production, growth rate, and basal circumference) of contrasting species was examined by conducting a short-term (one season) burning and mowing experiment. The effect of disturbance, its form and frequency through its effect on light and soil moisture was able to account for a substantial difference in species vigour, which can potentially impact community composition. Short species (Themeda triandra and Tristachya leucothrix) showed their highest biomass production and higher basal circumference enlargement in burnt summer mown sites, whereas medium to tall species (Aristida junciformis, Eragrostis curvula and Hyparrhenia hirta) were less tolerant to summer mowing. Aristidajunciformis and Eragrostis curvula appeared to be more vigorous (both in terms of above-ground biomass production and growth rate) in burnt but not mown and control treatment respectively. High biomass and litter accumulation on sites protected from disturbance appeared to have a large influence on species vigour. Species such as Aristida junciformis, Eragrostis curvula and Tristachya leucothrix had high tolerance to litter accumulation while in contrast Hyparrhenia hirta and Themeda triandra were more vulnerable. In total this study has revealed that the association of some short species e.g. Themeda triandra with the reccurrence of disturbance is mainly due to increases in light availability and lowered dominance from tall species in frequently disturbed sites rather than nutrient related. However, this study has revealed that there are some indications whereby the notion that the inverse relationship between available light and nitrogen are important driving variables in species change is an important working theory in the mesic grassveld of KZN.