Megaherbivores and cattle alter edge effects around ecosystem hotspots in an African savanna

Wild mammalian herbivores and cattle are fundamental drivers of African savanna ecosystems and have strong impacts on woody vegetation. However, few experimental studies have investigated the separate and combined influences of different large herbivores on spatial vegetation patterning. In East Africa, temporary cattle corrals (bomas) develop after abandonment into productive, treeless ‘glades’ that attract both domestic and wild herbivores. Edges of glades exhibit unusually high densities of large trees. We used a long term, broad-scale manipulative experiment to test whether megaherbivores (elephants and giraffes), wild meso-herbivores (15-1000kg), or cattle caused shifts in woody plant abundances in glade edges. We also examined cascading effects of megaherbivore and cattle exclusion on symbiotic Acacia ants and wild mesoherbivores in glade edges. Megaherbivore exclusion resulted in increased densities of tall trees, reproductive trees, and non-aggressive Acacia ant species in glade edges. Cattle presence reduced meso-herbivore use inside and away from glades, but not in glade edges. Our results suggest that megaherbivores and cattle can dampen the magnitude of spatial patterns associated with glades and glade edges. These findings provide insight into the development and maintenance of spatial heterogeneity in savannas, and emphasize that land use change and mammalian extinctions have complex, cascading ecological consequences.

Last Updated
January 27, 2021
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