Spatial heterogeneity in the herbaceous layer of a semi-arid savanna ecosystem

TitleSpatial heterogeneity in the herbaceous layer of a semi-arid savanna ecosystem
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2003
AuthorsAugustine, DJ
JournalPlant Ecology
Pagination319 -332
Accession NumberKNZ00859
KeywordsGeostatistics, Laikipia, Pattern diversity, Plant community patch structure, topography, Ungulate grazing

Despite increasing recognition of the role spatial pattern can play in ecosystem function, few studies have quantified spatial heterogeneity in savanna ecosystems. The spatial distribution of herbaceous biomass and species composition was measured across three scales in a semi-arid savanna in central Kenya, and patterns were related to environmental variables at different scales. Herbaceous biomass declined across a rainfall gradient and from upper to lower topographic positions, but variation within a site (across 5–50 m) was similar in magnitude to among-site variation associated with rainfall and topography. Geostatistical analyses showed that patchiness at scales of 5–25 m explained 20% of total variation in herbaceous biomass. This pattern arose from the presence of both 5–10-m diameter patches containing high herbaceous biomass (> 170 g m−2) and 5–10-m diameter patches characterized by nearly bare soil surfaces (< 40 g m−2). Patch structure was contingent on topography, with larger bare patches at ridgeline and upper hillslope positions. Grass species distributions showed the greatest degree of patch structure and species turnover across distances of 5–45 m. Additional community variation was associated with topography, with minimal variation in species composition across the rainfall gradient. Pattern diversity significantly exceeded levels reported for four other grassland ecosystems, suggesting fundamental differences in local processes generating spatial pattern. It is hypothesized that heterogeneously distributed grazing pressure, interacting with the distribution of shrub canopies, is an important factor generating such high levels of small-scale patch structure in this savanna.