Herbaceous responses to herbivory, fire and rainfall variability differ between grasses and forbs
Van Coller, H.
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Herbivory and fire are known to shape plant community structure and function in savanna ecosystems worldwide, yet these drivers are increasingly being altered in their behaviour, or completely excluded. Furthermore, herbaceous responses to rainfall in semi-arid and arid savannas may outweigh the effects of herbivory and fire, especially in nutrient-rich ecosystems. Despite considerable recognition of herbaceous responses to drivers in savanna systems, few studies consider grasses and forbs as distinct herbaceous functional entities. To address this shortcoming, we used long-term herbaceous vegetation data collected from herbivore and fire exclusion treatments in the Kruger National Park (KNP) in South Africa. We investigated response patterns in herbaceous abundances per functional group for three sampling years, which represented different rainfall conditions (i.e., average for 2010, above average for 2001, and below average for 2015. Dynamic shifts in forb versus grass dominance were revealed across treatments. Surprisingly, palatable annual forb communities seemed more resilient to herbivores, or their removal, dominating over palatable annual grass communities. Furthermore, unpalatable perennial forbs were revealed to be more resilient to herbivore presence than their absence. Palatable perennial grass abundances were consistently enhanced by above-average rainfall conditions, whereas equal dominance of palatable grasses and forbs was evident during the drought year. This highlights that palatable perennial functional groups (not grasses alone) provide important ecosystem functions, such as forage stability, and hence functional redundancy to absorb disturbances such as droughts. Moreover, rainfall variability and herbivory are considered the main drivers of palatable perennial functional groups in this nutrient-rich ecosystem. Palatable perennial grass abundances differed significantly from other alleged unfavourable herbaceous functional groups (e.g., unpalatable perennial grasses, annual grasses, and annual and perennial forbs) and, although they presented contrasting patterns for each sampling year, fire and herbivory treatments, palatable perennial grasses remained the dominant functional group in this ecosystem type. Therefore, this study did not support previous findings that conditions such as drought, fire and herbivory favour unfavourable functional groups at the expense of palatable perennial grasses. Observed patterns provide evidence of a dynamic and less predictable coexistence between grasses and forbs