Grassland structural heterogeneity in a savanna is driven more by productivity differences than by consumption differences between lawn and bunch grasses

Michiel P. Veldhuis, Heleen F. Fakkert, Matty P. Berg and Han Olff

Publication   Laymen’s summary   Nederlandse samenvatting  PDF

Savanna grasslands are characterized by high spatial heterogeneity in vegetation structure, aboveground biomass and nutritional quality, with high quality shortgrass grazing lawns forming mosaics with patches of tall bunch grasses of lower quality. This heterogeneity can arise because of local differences in consumption, because of differences in productivity, or because both processes enforce each other (more production and consumption). However, the relative importance of both processes in maintaining mosaics of lawn and bunch grassland types has not been measured. Also their interplay been not been assessed across landscape gradients. In a South African savanna, we, therefore, measured the seasonal changes in primary production, nutritional quality and herbivore consumption (amount and percentage) of grazing lawns and adjacent bunch grass patches across a rainfall gradient. We found both higher amounts of primary production and, to a smaller extent, consumption for bunch grass patches. In addition, for bunch grasses primary production increased towards higher rainfall while foliar nitrogen concentrations decreased. Foliar nitrogen concentrations of lawn grasses decreased much less with increasing rainfall. Consequently, large herbivores targeted the biomass produced on grazing lawns with on average 75 % of the produced biomass consumed. We conclude that heterogeneity in vegetation structure in this savanna ecosystem is better explained by smallscale differences in productivity between lawn and bunch grass vegetation types than by local differences in consumption rates. Nevertheless, the high nutritional quality of grazing lawns is highly attractive and, therefore, important for the maintenance of the heterogeneity in species composition (i.e. grazing lawn maintenance).