Large herbivores promote habitat specialization and beta diversity of African savanna trees

Robert Mitchell Pringle, Kirsten M. Prior, Todd M. Palmer, Truman P. Young, Jacob R. Goheen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Edaphic variation in plant community composition is widespread, yet its underlying mechanisms are rarely understood and often assumed to be physiological. In East African savannas, Acacia tree species segregate sharply across soils of differing parent material: the ant-defended whistling thorn, A. drepanolobium (ACDR), is monodominant on cracking clay vertisols that are nutrient rich but physically stressful, whereas poorly defended species such as A. brevispica (ACBR) dominate on nutrient-poor but otherwise less-stressful sandy loams. Using a series of feld experiments, we show that large-mammal herbivory interacts with soil properties to maintain this pattern. In the absence of large herbivores, transplanted saplings of both species established on both soil types. Browsers strongly suppressed survival and growth of ACDR saplings on sandy soil, where resource limitation constrained defensive investment. On clay soil, ACBR saplings established regardless of herbivory regime, but elephants prevented recruitment to maturity, apparently because trees could not tolerate the combination of biotic and abiotic stressors. Hence, each tree species was fltered out of one habitat by browsing in conjunction with different edaphic factors and at different ontogenetic stages. Browser abundance was greater on sandy soil, where trees were less defended, consistent with predicted feedbacks between plant community assembly and herbivore distributions. By exploring two inversely related axes of soil "quality" (abiotic stress and nutrient content), our study extends the range of mechanisms by which herbivores are known to promote edaphic specialization, illustrates how the high cost of a protection mutualism can constrain the realized niche of host trees, and shows that large-scale properties of savanna ecosystems are shaped by species interactions in cryptic ways that mimic simple abiotic determinism. These results suggest that ongoing declines in large-herbivore populations may relax spatial heterogeneity in plant assemblages and reduce the beta diversity of communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2640-2657
Number of pages18
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Community assembly
  • Edaphic specialization
  • Fundamental niche
  • Habitat fltering
  • Megafauna
  • Multiple stressor synergy
  • Plant defenses
  • Positive feedbacks
  • Savannah tree cover
  • Tolerance and apparency
  • Ungulate herbivory
  • Wildlife declines


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