The influence of soil depth on plant species response to grazing within a semi-arid savanna
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- Fuhlendorf, S.D. & Smeins, F.E. Plant Ecology (1998) 138: 89. doi:10.1023/A:1009704723526
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Grassland patches within a semi-arid savanna were evaluated over 45-years for (1) local temporal dynamics of basal area for five dominant grass species within long-term heavily grazed and ungrazed treatments, (2) the influence of soil depth (resource availability) on vegetation dynamics, and (3) the applicability of community-level grazing response groups over fine-scale patterns of soil heterogeneity. Temporal patterns in species composition and basal area were dependent upon soil depth. In the heavy grazed treatment, Hilaria belangeri dominated deep soils while Erioneuron pilosum and Bouteloua trifida were restricted to shallow soils. In the ungrazed treatment, removal of grazing resulted in successional changes that were significantly different across soil depths. After 45 years without grazing, Eriochloa sericea was most abundant on deep soils while Bouteloua curtipendula was more abundant on intermediate and shallow soils. Community-level functional groups that are based on grazing were not appropriate when multiple pattern-driving variables were considered across multiple scales indicating that functional groups should only be applied to certain processes at specific scales. Within the ungrazed treatments, variable soil depths have resulted in a shifting mosaic in time and space where early- and late-successional species co-exist continuously but spatially separated within the community. In the heavily grazed treatment, species are somewhat spatially arranged by soil depths, but much of the inherent heterogeneity is eliminated and species composition is dominated by the three grazing-resistant short-grasses. Broad scale successional changes may appear linear and predictable while at finer scales, the same changes may be described as non-linear and dependent upon soil depth resulting in thresholds that are partially explained by weather patterns, seed bank limitations and competitive inhibitions.