Woody plant seed dispersal and gap formation in a North American subtropical savanna woodland: the role of domestic herbivores
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The relationship between domestic cattle and vegetation change in a savanna woodland was evaluated with respect to dung deposition and the dispersal and establishment of mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. glandulosa, Mimosaceae), a cosmopolitan woody invader of grasslands in the southwestern USA. Dung deposited in autumn disintegrated rapidly, leaving patches of bare ground ranging from 50 to 900 cm2. Herbaceous cover on gaps created by dung deposition recovered to levels comparable to neighboring vegetation by the end of the following growing season. Vegetation colonizing gaps consisted primarily of grasses not found in the surrounding vegetation. Dung deposition increased species diversity and spatial heterogeneity of the herbaceous vegetation and contributed to the development of a fine-grain mosaic of small patches of varying successional age-states.
The role of cattle in facilitating the ingress and establishment of mesquite has broader implications with regard to the conversion of grasslands to woodlands. On the site with cattle, mesquite seedlings were found in 75% of dung pats surveyed in September (mean =4.2 seedlings per pat; maximum =50). Although seedling survival in dung (79%) was only 16% greater than that of mesquite emerging from seeds experimentally sown away from dung, no seedlings were found on areas without cattle. Mean (± SE) density of mesquite seedlings ranged from 12±2 to 15±2 m-2 on the site with cattle. Seed densities away from parent plants averaged 10.7 m-2 and 0.0 m-2 on areas with and without cattle, respectively. Seed densities beneath adult plants were comparable between sites.
The high density of seedlings on areas with cattle, in contrast to absence of seedlings on the area without cattle, suggests rates of invasion of grasslands by mesquite would have increased substantially in North America following the settlement and introduction of domestic ungulates. Prior to the introduction of livestock, poor seed dissemination and germination may have limited its Holocene spread.
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