Plant functional types differ between the grassland and savanna biomes along an agro-ecosystem disturbance gradient in South Africa
Van den Berg, J.
MetadataShow full item record
Intensive, large-scale cultivation of food crops has led to major biodiversity loss worldwide due to fragmentation and degradation of remnant semi-natural habitat within agro-ecosystems. The response of vegetation to these disturbances is often measured in terms of taxonomic diversity loss. However, some plant groups may have more pronounced negative reactions to agricultural disturbance than others, which may not necessarily be expressed in the overall species diversity of the community. It is now widely accepted that the responses of plant taxa to environmental disturbances may be more directly linked to characteristics or traits that enable or hinder their persistence in disturbed environments. This highlights the need to assess the impacts of agricultural disturbance on the abundance patterns and diversity of specific plant traits and functional types. Maize agriculture is a common land-use feature in the grassy biomes of South Africa, but the effect that crop production has on surrounding semi-natural vegetation is still relatively unknown. In this study, we describe the specific functional trait patterns of plant communities associated with maize agro-ecosystems in six localities situated within the Grassland and Savanna biomes of South Africa. Although functional diversity was severely decreased in maize fields, marginal vegetation (30–100 m from crop field edges) displayed no indication of functional diversity loss or major changes in trait composition. Chamaephytic and hemicryptophytic (perennial) life forms, nitrogen-fixing ability and spinescence were trait attributes that were most frequently found in semi-natural vegetation but were lost in the crop field environment. Inside the maize fields, these trait attributes were replaced by annual, low-growing individuals with clonal parts and long-range dispersal mechanisms that can establish in the ephemeral crop field environment. Observed patterns were different for grassland and savanna maize fields, indicating that maize fields situated in the Grassland and Savanna biomes favoured different plant trait assemblages