Responses of savanna lawn and bunch grasses to water limitation

Van der Plas F, Zeinstra P, Veldhuis MP, Fokkema R, Tielens E, Howison RA and Olff H

Publication  PDF

The grass layer of African savannas consists of two main vegetation types: grazing lawns, dominated by short, mostly clonally reproducing grasses, and bunch grasslands, dominated by tall bunch grasses. This patchy distribution of vegetation types is mostly created by large herbivores, which selectively feed on the more nutritious lawn grass species. Besides grazing, herbivores trample the soil, thereby causing soil compaction, with possible consequences for water infiltration. This raises two questions: (i) is water more limiting in grazing lawns than in bunch grasslands and (ii) are lawn grasses more drought tolerant than bunch grasses? To study these questions, we compared drought conditions in both lawn and bunch grasslands in a South African savanna. Additionally, in a climate room, we compared the performance of three lawn and three bunch grass species under a control and a water limitation treatment. Thirdly, we investigated whether there are differences between lawn and bunch grasses in traits related to drought tolerance. Our results show that despite large differences in water availability in the field, lawn and bunch grasses did not differ in their growth response to drought. Drought reduced growth of both growth forms equally. However, we found strong intrinsic trait differences between growth forms, with lawn grasses having higher specific root length and relative growth rate and bunch grasses having a higher root:shoot ratio. These results suggest that after drought-induced plant death, lawn grasses might be more capable of recolonizing patches of bare soil.