Fire alters ecosystem carbon and nutrients but not plant nutrient stoichiometry or composition in tropical savanna

Adam F.A. Pellegrini, Lars O. Hedin, A. Carla Staver, Navashni Govender

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86 Scopus citations


Fire and nutrients interact to influence the global distribution and dynamics of the savanna biome, but the results of these interactions are both complex and poorly known. A critical but unresolved question is whether short-term losses of carbon and nutrients caused by fire can trigger long-term and potentially compensatory responses in the nutrient stoichiometry of plants, or in the abundance of dinitrogen-fixing trees. There is disagreement in the literature about the potential role of fire on savanna nutrients, and, in turn, on plant stoichiometry and composition. A major limitation has been the lack of fire manipulations over time scales sufficiently long for these interactions to emerge. We use a 58-year, replicated, large-scale, fire manipulation experiment in Kruger National Park (South Africa) in savanna to quantify the effect of fire on (1) distributions of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus at the ecosystem scale; (2) carbon: nitrogen: phosphorus stoichiometry of above- and belowground tissues of plant species; and (3) abundance of plant functional groups including nitrogen fixers. Our results show dramatic effects of fire on the relative distribution of nutrients in soils, but that individual plant stoichiometry and plant community composition remained unexpectedly resilient. Moreover, measures of nutrients and carbon stable isotopes allowed us to discount the role of tree cover change in favor of the turnover of herbaceous biomass as the primary mechanism that mediates a transition from low to high soil carbon and nutrients in the absence of fire. We conclude that, in contrast to extra-tropical grasslands or closed-canopy forests, vegetation in the savanna biome may be uniquely adapted to nutrient losses caused by recurring fire.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1275-1285
Number of pages11
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • African savanna
  • Carbon
  • Fire
  • Fire-nutrient feedbacks
  • Kruger National Park
  • Nitrogen
  • Nitrogen-fixing plants
  • Phosphorus
  • Savanna biogeochemistry
  • Stoichiometry


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