, Volume 9, Issue 8, pp 1242–1256 | Cite as

Interactive Effects of Ungulate Herbivores, Soil Fertility, and Variable Rainfall on Ecosystem Processes in a Semi-arid Savanna



Large herbivores can both positively and negatively affect primary productivity and rates of nutrient cycling in different ecosystems. Positive effects of grazers in grasslands have been attributed to migratory behavior of the dominant ungulate species and soil fertility. We studied the effects of grazers on aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) and N cycling on central Kenyan rangeland characterized by intense, chronic grazing by a mixed community of cattle and resident native ungulates. Exclosure studies conducted at high and low levels of soil fertility showed that both soil fertility and annual rainfall patterns mediate the effects of grazers on ANPP and N cycling. In a low-rainfall year with short (1 month) growing seasons, grazers reduced aboveground productivity regardless of soil nutrient availability. However, in a high-rainfall year with a 5-month growing season, grazers increased ANPP on nutrient-rich glades and suppressed ANPP on nutrient-poor bushland sites. Concomitant studies of grazer effects on N cycling revealed complex interactions with the seasonal pattern of N-mineralization and inorganic N availability. Grazers increased the size of the inorganic N pool available to plants at the onset of the growing season, particularly in nutrient-rich glades. However, grazers also decreased N mineralization rates at all sites early in the growing season. Measures of N availability via ion-exchange resin bags suggested that the combined effects of grazers on inorganic N pool fluctuations and N-mineralization rates resulted in a net increase in N availability at glade sites and a net decrease in N availability at bushland sites. The net effect of grazers on soil N availability mirrored grazer effects on ANPP in the high-rainfall year. Overall, our results suggest that grazer effects on N dynamics are closely linked to effects on productivity and resilience to drought. Furthermore, even under optimal conditions of high soil fertility and above-average rainfall, grazer promotion of ANPP in this chronically grazed system dominated by resident ungulates was small compared to systems dominated by migratory ungulates.


cattle grazing ecosystems grassland impala inorganic nitrogen nutrient cycling nonequilibrium rangelands phosphorous wildlife management 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologySyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA
  2. 2.USDA Forest ServiceComanche National GrasslandSpringfieldUSA

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