Plant and Soil

, Volume 336, Issue 1–2, pp 3–14 | Cite as

Deciphering earth mound origins in central Brazil

  • Lucas C. R. SilvaEmail author
  • Gabriel D. Vale
  • Ricardo F. Haidar
  • Leonel da S. L. Sternberg
Regular Article


Mound fields are a common landscape throughout the world and much of the evidence for their origin has been of a circumstantial nature. It has been hypothesized that earth mounds emerge over grasslands by termite activity; alternatively, they might be formed after erosion. We tested whether a mound field in central Brazil was generated by termite activity or erosion. We used soil organic matter isotopic composition, soil chemical, physical and floristic composition to determine the origin of a mound field. If the mounds emerged by termite activity in an established grassland the soil organic matter below the mound should have the isotopic signature of C4 dominated grassland, which contrasts with savanna C3 + C4 signature. Additionally, soil traits should resemble those of the grassland. All markers indicate that the mounds were formed by erosion. The soil isotopic composition, chemical traits and texture below the mound resembled those of the savanna and not those of the grassland. Moreover, most of the species present in the mound were typical of savanna. Concrete evidence is provided that mound fields in the studied area were produced by erosion of a savanna ecosystem and not termite activity. The use of the techniques applied here would improve the assessments of whether analogous landscapes are of a biogenic nature or not.


Carbon isotope Soil Erosion Savanna Termites murundus 



We thank Doyle McKey (Centre D’Écologie Fonctionnelle Et Évolutive (CEFE)-CNRS), Norton Polo Benito (EMBRAPA-Cenargen), José Carlos Sousa Silva (EMBRAPA-Cerrados) for helpful comments.


  1. Andrade L, Felfili JM, Violatti L (2002) Fitossociologia de uma área de cerrado denso na Recor-IBGE, Brasília-DF. Acta Bot Bras 16:225–240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Angiosperm Phylogeny Group II (2003) An update of the Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG II. Bot J Linn Soc 141:399–436CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Araújo Neto MD, Furley PA, Haridasan M, Johnson CE (1986) The “mounds” of the “cerrado” region of Central Brazil. J Trop Ecol 2:17–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bremner JM, Mulvaney CS (1982) Nitrogen total. In: Page AL, Miller RH, Keeney DR (eds) Methods of soil analysis: chemical and microbiological properties. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, pp 595–624Google Scholar
  5. Brossard M, López-Hernández D, Lepage M, Leprun J (2007) Nutrient storage in soils and nests of mound-building Trinervitermes termites in central Burkina Faso: consequences for soil fertility. Biol Fertil Soils 43:437–447CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cox GW, Gakahu CG, Waithaka JM (1989) The form and small stone content of large earth mounds constructed by mole rats and termites in Kenya. Pedobiologia 33:307–314Google Scholar
  7. Day PR (1965) Particle fractionation and particle-size analysis. In: Black CA (ed) Methods of soil analysis, Part 1. American Society of Agronomy, Madison, pp 545–567Google Scholar
  8. Eiten G (1972) The cerrado vegetation of Brazil. Bot Rev 38:201–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Eiten G (1984) Vegetation of Brasilia. Phytocoenologia 12:271–292Google Scholar
  10. Eiten G (1990) Vegetação do cerrado. Cerrado: caracterização, ocupação e perspectivas. In: Novaes Pinto M (ed) Editora Universidade de Brasília, Brasília, pp 9–65Google Scholar
  11. Ellery WN, McCarthy TS, Dangerfield JM (1998) Biotic factors in mima mound development: evidence from the floodplains of the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Int J Ecol Environ Sci 24:293–313Google Scholar
  12. Embrapa (1999) Sistema brasileiro de classificação de solos. Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária—Embrapa Solos, Rio de JaneiroGoogle Scholar
  13. Felfili JM (1995) Diversity, structure and dynamics of a gallery forest in central Brazil. Vegetatio 117:1–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Felfili JM, Silva Júnior MC (1992) Floristic composition, phytosociology and comparison of cerrado and gallery forests at Fazenda Água Limpa, Federal District, Brazil. In: Furley PA, Proctor J, Ratter JA (eds) Nature and dynamics of forest-savanna boundaries. Chapman & Hall, London, pp 393–407Google Scholar
  15. Felfili JM, Silva Júnior MC (1993) A comparative study of cerrado (sensu stricto) vegetation in central Brazil. J Trop Ecol 9:277–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Felfili JM, Silva Júnior MC, Rezende AV, Machado JWB, Walter BMT, Silva PEN, Hay JD (1993) Análise comparativa da florística e fitossociologia da vegetação arbórea do cerrado sensu stricto na Chapada Pratinha, DF-Brasil. Acta Bot Bras 6:27–46Google Scholar
  17. Furley PA (1986) Classification and distribution of mounds in the Cerrado of central Brazil. J Biogeogr 13:265–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Furley PA, Ratter JA (1988) Soil resources and plant communities of the central Brazilian Cerrado and their development. J Biogeogr 15:97–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Guarino ESG, Walter BMT (2005) Fitossociologia de dois trechos inundáveis de Matas de Galeria no Distrito Federal, Brasil. Acta Bot Bras 19:431–442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kent M, Coker P (1995) Vegetation description and analysis: a practical approach. Wiley, ChichesterGoogle Scholar
  21. Magurran AE (1988) Ecological diversity and its measurement. Helm, LondonGoogle Scholar
  22. Martinelli LA, Pessenda LCR, Espinoza E (1996) Carbon-13 depth variation in soil of Brazil and relations with climate changes during the Quaternary. Oecologia 106:376–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. McCarthy TS, Ellery WN, Dangerfield JM (1998) The role of biota in the initiation and growth of islands on the floodplain of the Okavango alluvial fan, Botswana. Earth Surf Proc Land 23:291–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mehlich A (1953) Determination of P, Ca, Mg, K, Na and NH4. North Carolina Soil Test Division, North Carolina Department of Agriculture, RaleighGoogle Scholar
  25. Midgley J, Harris C, Hesse H, Swift A (2002) Heuweltjie age and vegetation change based on C-13 and C-14 analyses. S Afr J Sci 98:202–204Google Scholar
  26. Mollard JD (1982) Landforms and surface ma-terials of Canada: a stereoscopic airphoto atlas and glossary. Mollard and Associates, Ltd., ReginaGoogle Scholar
  27. Munhoz CBR, Felfili JM, Rodrigues C (2008) Species-environment relationship in the herb-subshrub layer of a moist Savanna site, Federal District, Brazil. Braz J Biol 68:25–35CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Oliveira-Filho AT (1992) Floodplain ‘murundus’ of central Brazil: evidence for the termite origin hypothesis. J Trop Ecol 8:1–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Oliveira-Filho AT, Furley PA (1990) Monchao, cocututo, mounds. Ciencia Hoje 11:30–37Google Scholar
  30. Pessenda LCR, Gomes BM, Aravena R, Ribeiro AS, Boulet R, Gouveia SEM (1998) The carbon isotope record in soils along a forest–cerrado ecosystem transect: implications for vegetation changes in the Rondonia state, southwestern Brazilian Amazon region. Holocene 8:599–603CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Picker MD, Hoffman MT, Leverton B (2007) The density of Microhodotermes viator (Hodotermitidae) mounds in southern Africa in relation to rainfall and productivity gradients. J Zool 271:37–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ponce VM, Cunha CN (1993) Vegetated earthmounds in tropical savannas of central Brazil: a synthesis. With special reference to the Pantanal do Mato Grosso. J Biogeogr 20:219–225CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Rahlao SJ, Hoffman MT, Todd SW, McGrath K (2008) Long-term vegetation change in the Succulent Karoo, South Africa following 67 years of rest from grazing. J Arid Environ 72:808–819CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Resende ILM, Araújo GM, Oliveira APA, Oliveira AP, Júnior RSA (2004) A comunidade vegetal e as características abióticas de um grassland de murundu em Uberlândia, MG. Acta Bot Bras 18:9–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ribeiro JF, Tabarelli M (2002) A structural gradient in Cerrado vegetation of Brazil: changes in woody plant density, species richness, life history and plant composition. J Trop Ecol 18:775–794Google Scholar
  36. Ross BA, Tester JR, Breckenridge WJ (1968) Ecology of Mima-type mounds in north-west Minnesota. Ecology 49:172–177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sanaiotti TM, Martinelli LA, Victoria RL, Trumbore SE, Camargo PB (2002) Past vegetation changes in Amazon savannas determined using carbon isotopes of soil organic matter. Biotropica 34:2–16Google Scholar
  38. Silva Júnior MC (2004) Fitossociologia e estrutura diamétrica da mata de galeria do Taquara, na Reserva Ecológica do IBGE, DF. Rev Árvore 28:419–428CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Silva LCR, Sternberg L, Haridasan M, Hoffmann WA, Miralles-Wilhelm F, Franco AC (2008) Expansion of gallery forests into central Brazilian savannas. Glob Chang Biol 14:2108–2118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Souza VC, Lorenzi H (2005) Botânica sistemática: Guia ilustrado para identificação das famílias de angiospermas da flora brasileira, baseado em APG II. Instituto Plantarum, Nova OdessaGoogle Scholar
  41. Victoria RL, Fernandes F, Martinelli LA, Piccolo MC, Camargo PB, Trumbore S (1995) Past vegetation changes in the Brazilian Pantanal arboreal–grassy savanna ecotone by using carbon isotopes in the soil organic matter. Glob Chang Biol 1:165–171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Walkley A, Black IA (1934) An examination of the Degtjareff method for determining soil organic matter and a proposed modification of the chromic acid titration method. Soil Sci 37:29–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Wright SJ, Duber HC (2001) Poachers and forest fragmentation alter seed dispersal, seed survival, and seedling recruitment in the palm Attalea butyracea with implications for tropical tree diversity. Biotropica 33:583–595Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lucas C. R. Silva
    • 1
    • 2
    • 6
    Email author
  • Gabriel D. Vale
    • 3
  • Ricardo F. Haidar
    • 4
  • Leonel da S. L. Sternberg
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Forest EngineeringUniversity of BrasiliaBrasiliaBrazil
  2. 2.Embrapa Cerrados Agricultural Research CenterPlanaltinaBrazil
  3. 3.Laboratory of Forest ManagementNational Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA)ManausBrazil
  4. 4.Department of Forest EngineeringUniversity of BrasíliaBrasíliaBrazil
  5. 5.Department of BiologyUniversity of MiamiCoral GablesUSA
  6. 6.Global Ecological Change (GEC) Laboratory, Department of Environmental BiologyUniversity of GuelphGuelphCanada

Personalised recommendations