Woody plant biomass and carbon exchange depend on elephant-fire interactions across a productivity gradient in African savanna

Adam F.A. Pellegrini, Robert Mitchell Pringle, Navashni Govender, Lars O. Hedin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Elephants and fire are individually well-known disturbance agents within savanna ecosystems, but their interactive role in governing tree-cover dynamics and savanna–forest biome boundaries remains unresolved. Of central importance are the mechanisms by which elephants vs. fire affect tree biomass and cover, and how – over long time periods – both factors interact with rainfall and soils to govern tree biomass and carbon dynamics. Here, we evaluated the response of woody vegetation to 56 years of fire manipulation in South Africa's Kruger National Park, with three fire regimes (annual, triennial and unburned) replicated across a productivity gradient and subject to two periods of contrasting elephant abundances (generated by the cessation of culling in 1994). Higher fire frequencies had a negative effect on woody biomass in the low-elephant period, but this effect was weak to negligible in the high-elephant period as the difference among fire treatments diminished. Moreover, elephants removed increasing amounts of woody biomass as productivity increased across study sites, but fire did not. We infer that elephant-induced tree mortality could overcome increases in woody-plant productivity, while fire-induced mortality alone could not. Elephants caused woody-plant carbon to shift from a sink to a source; this effect was independent of fire treatment, with highest rates of net carbon removal in the wettest and most productive site. Synthesis. Our results reveal a context-dependent interaction between fire and elephants as disturbance agents in savanna: the influence of fire on woody plants was sensitive to the abundance of elephants and diminished with increased plant productivity. In contrast, elephants were capable of shifting landscapes from relatively dense woodland to open savanna, even in unburned sites, and exerted strong impacts irrespective of site conditions and plant productivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-121
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


  • African savanna
  • Kruger National Park
  • carbon storage
  • elephants
  • fire
  • herbivory
  • savanna ecology
  • tree biomass and cover


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