JOURNAL ARTICLE

Grass competition suppresses savanna tree growth across multiple demographic stages

Corinna Riginos
Ecology 2009, 90 (2): 335-40
19323216
Savanna ecosystems, defined by the codominance of trees and grasses, cover one-fifth of the world's land surface and are of great socioeconomic and biological importance. Yet, the fundamental question of how trees and grasses coexist to maintain the savanna state remains poorly understood. Many models have been put forward to explain tree-grass coexistence, but nearly all have assumed that grasses do not limit tree growth and demography beyond the sapling stage. This assumption, however, has rarely been tested. Here I show that grass can strongly suppress the growth of trees. I removed grass around trees of three size classes in an Acacia drepanolobium savanna in Laikipia, Kenya. For even the largest trees, grass removal led to a doubling in growth and a doubling in the probability of transitioning to the next size class over two years. These results suggest that grass competition in productive (nutrient-rich) savannas may limit tree growth as much as herbivory and fire (the main factors thought to determine tree demography within a rainfall region) and should be incorporated into savanna models if tree-grass coexistence and savanna dynamics are to be understood.

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