Factors affecting savanna tree sapling recruitment.
Savannas are globally important ecosystems characterized by the coexistence of trees and grasses. Woody plants, which are slow-growing dominant life forms, influence the physiognomic structure and function of savanna ecosystems. Their density and distribution provides sustenance to a vast and unique savanna biodiversity, by forming a major source of food material to large mammalian herbivores, sheltering them and through their facilitation of diverse plant species. Savanna tree existence is strongly affected by factors that determine their sapling recruitment. We defined „sapling‟ as a young tree, in the first season of its growth, which does not depend on cotyledonary reserves (=seedling stage) and relies on external resources to grow further. Sapling recruitment may strictly be defined as the progression of a young plant from seedling to sapling stage. However, we believe that savanna tree saplings, present within the grass layer in the initial years of their growth, are equally vulnerable to environmental stresses. This study examines the factors affecting tree sapling establishment in a humid savanna (1250 mm mean annual precipitation). Additionally, the effects of fire were tested in a greenhouse experiment. Dominant species from humid savannas (> 1000 mm MAP), Acacia karroo, Acacia sieberiana, Schotia brachypetala and Strychnos spinosa, and mesic savannas (approx. 750 mm MAP), Acacia nigrescens, Acacia tortilis, Colophospermum mopane and Combretum apiculatum, were studied. In this thesis I examined the effects of resource availability (water, nutrients and light), disturbances (fire and herbivory) and competition (grass) on the sapling ecology of these species. Sapling recruitment and growth were assessed in terms of survival and aboveground growth responses, i.e. total biomass, stem growth rates (used as proxy measures for assessing persistence) and leaf biomass proportion (important for producing root reserves necessary to resprout). I studied the effects of fire and a nutrient gradient on survival and growth of four Acacia species in the presence of grass competition, in a controlled greenhouse experiment. Generally, Acacias invest in defenses after herbivory. I also determined their physical and chemical defense investments in this experiment. Sapling survival was not influenced by nutrients but highly varied among the species due to fire, indicating that fires may have a differential effect on species composition at a landscape scale. Intermediate levels of nutrients were found to be beneficial for sapling growth than high and low levels. This may be due to an increase in grass competition at higher levels of nutrients. Fires did not have a positive influence on sapling defence investment. To evaluate the relative importance of resource availability on sapling tree recruitment and its interactions with grass competition, I tested the effects of water (frequent irrigation vs. rainfall), shade (presence vs. absence), nutrients (addition vs. no addition) and grass competition (presence vs. absence) on sapling survival and growth under controlled field conditions in a humid South African savanna. Treatments did not have an effect on sapling survival, indicating that mortality is not defined by resource availability and grass competition in humid savannas. Shade had the greatest negative effect on sapling growth, suppressing the beneficial effects of nutrients and absence of grass competition. Nutrient limitation and grass competition had a relatively small influence on savanna sapling growth. Frequency of water availability had no effect on sapling growth, perhaps owing to high rainfall experienced over the experimental period. Therefore, canopy shade can be considered to be an important driver of tree dynamics in humid savannas with some degree of influence by nutrient availability and grass competition. The effects of clipping (i.e. simulated herbivory of grass and tree saplings) as influenced by nutrient availability and grass competition were examined on sapling survival and growth of all study species in a humid savanna. None of the treatments had an effect on sapling survival. This signifies that herbivory alone cannot significantly decrease plant density in humid savannas. However, tree saplings grew taller with a reduction in diameter and overall biomass, implying that saplings may become more susceptible to fires after herbivory. Nutrient addition and grass competition in general had a positive and negative effect, respectively, on sapling growth. This response was prominent in the stem length growth rates of defoliated saplings of one humid and two mesic species. These results imply that clipping (or herbivory) is the major factor reducing sapling vigour to establish, but is affected by both grass competition and nutrient availability. This study shows that fire has a differential effect on sapling survival of different species, particularly between humid savanna species. Light interception among all other resources limits the recruitment of saplings into adult size classes. Clipping, nutrient availability and grass competition had a relatively small direct effect, but may interact with other factors to alter sapling establishment dynamics. Wet-season droughts in humid savannas are not a hindrance to tree establishment because sapling survival was not dependent on frequency of rainfall. Thus, in humid savannas, fires can have a major impact on tree species density and composition while canopy shade has a very high potential to alter tree distribution.