Soil organic carbon is buffered by grass inputs regardless of woody cover or fire frequency in an African savanna

C. Coetsee, E. C. February, B. J. Wigley, L. Kleyn, T. Strydom, L. O. Hedin, H. Watson, F. Attore, A. Pellegrini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Woody plant encroachment (WPE) is a global trend that occurs in many biomes, including savannas, and accelerates with fire suppression. Since WPE can result in increased storage of soil organic carbon (SOC), fire management, which may include fire suppression, can improve ecosystem carbon (C) sequestration in savannas. At our study site in Kruger National Park, South Africa, we used a long-term (~70 year) fire experiment to study the drivers and consequences of changes in woody cover (trees and shrubs) on SOC sequestration. We surveyed four fire manipulation treatments, replicated at eight locations within the park: annual high-intensity burns, triennial high (dry season) and low-intensity (wet season) burns, and fire exclusion, to capture the range of fire management scenarios under consideration. The changes in woody cover were calculated over a period similar to the experiment's duration (~80 years) using aerial photographs (1944–2018). Soils were analysed to 30 cm depth for SOC and δ13C, under and away from the tree canopy to isolate local- and landscape-level effects of WPE on SOC. The largest increases in woody cover occurred with fire exclusion. We found that plots with higher increases in woody cover also had higher SOC. However, trees were not the only contributor to SOC gains, sustained high inputs of C4-derived C (grasses), even under canopies in fire suppression plots, contributed significantly to SOC. We observed little difference in SOC sequestration between cooler triennial (wet season) burns and fire suppression. Synthesis. Grass input to soil organic carbon (SOC) remained high across the full range of woody cover created by varying burning regimes. The total SOC stocks stored from tree input only matched grass-derived SOC stocks after almost 70 years of fire exclusion. Our results point to C4 grasses as a resilient contributor to SOC under altered fire regimes and further challenge the assumption that increasing tree cover, either through afforestation schemes or fire suppression, will result in large gains in C sequestration in savanna soils, even after 70 years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2483-2495
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


  • fire manipulation
  • grass biomass inputs
  • historic aerial photos
  • savanna fires
  • soil organic carbon sequestration
  • woody cover changes


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