, Volume 214, Issue 10, pp 1211-1222
Date: 30 Aug 2013

Ecosystem responses to woody plant encroachment in a semiarid savanna rangeland

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Abstract

Woody plant encroachment alters the structure and function of rangeland ecosystems. The objective of this study was to explore the association between woody plant encroachment and various ecosystem properties (i.e. vascular plant species diversity, richness, evenness, soil organic matter, herbaceous biomass, leaf litter and bare ground cover) in a semiarid savanna rangeland, and also to test whether the relationships were influenced by woody species composition, elevation and site. We carried out a vegetation survey in four rangeland sites in the lower Omo region of southwestern Ethiopia, and regressed each one of the ecosystem properties, separately, against woody plant density, elevation and site using multiple linear regressions. We found that vascular plant species diversity, richness and evenness increased with woody plant density, most likely due to increased spatial heterogeneity and soil microclimate improvement. Bare ground cover increased significantly, whereas herbaceous biomass and soil organic matter did not respond to woody encroachment. In a subsequent investigation, we used a redundancy analysis to assess whether ecosystem properties were influenced by the identity of encroaching woody plant species. Species diversity and richness responded positively to Lannea triphylla, whereas leaf litter responded positively to Grewia tenax and G. villosa. Our findings suggest that woody plant encroachment in a semiarid rangeland does alter ecosystem properties. However, its impact is highly variable, influenced by a set of factors including the level of encroachment and identity of encroaching woody species.