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Oecologia. 2007 Oct;153(4):985-95. Epub 2007 Jul 28.

Positive and negative effects of grass, cattle, and wild herbivores on Acacia saplings in an East African savanna.

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Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


Plant-plant interactions can be a complex mixture of positive and negative interactions, with the net outcome depending on abiotic and community contexts. In savanna systems, the effects of large herbivores on tree-grass interactions have rarely been studied experimentally, though these herbivores are major players in these systems. In African savannas, trees often become more abundant under heavy cattle grazing but less abundant in wildlife preserves. Woody encroachment where cattle have replaced wild herbivores may be caused by a shift in the competitive balance between trees and grasses. Here we report the results of an experiment designed to quantify the positive, negative, and net effects of grasses, wild herbivores, and cattle on Acacia saplings in a Kenyan savanna. Acacia drepanolobium saplings under four long-term herbivore regimes (wild herbivores, cattle, cattle + wild herbivores, and no large herbivores) were cleared of surrounding grass or left with the surrounding grass intact. After two years, grass-removal saplings exhibited 86% more browse damage than control saplings, suggesting that grass benefited saplings by protecting them from herbivory. However, the negative effect of grass on saplings was far greater; grass-removal trees accrued more than twice the total stem length of control trees. Where wild herbivores were present, saplings were browsed more and produced more new stem growth. Thus, the net effect of wild herbivores was positive, possibly due to the indirect effects of lower competitor tree density in areas accessible to elephants. Additionally, colonization of saplings by symbiotic ants tracked growth patterns, and colonized saplings experienced lower rates of browse damage. These results suggest that savanna tree growth and woody encroachment cannot be predicted by grass cover or herbivore type alone. Rather, tree growth appears to depend on a variety of factors that may be acting together or antagonistically at different stages of the tree's life cycle.

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