Agricultural expansion in African savannas: effects on diversity and composition of trees and mammals

Hemant G. Tripathi, Emily S. Woollen, Mariana Carvalho, Catherine L. Parr, Casey M. Ryan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Land use change (LUC) is the leading cause of biodiversity loss worldwide. However, the global understanding of LUC's impact on biodiversity is mainly based on comparisons of land use endpoints (habitat vs non-habitat) in forest ecosystems. Hence, it may not generalise to savannas, which are ecologically distinct from forests, as they are inherently patchy, and disturbance adapted. Endpoint comparisons also cannot inform the management of intermediate mosaic landscapes. We aim to address these gaps by investigating species- and community-level responses of mammals and trees along a gradient of small scale agricultural expansion in the miombo woodlands of northern Mozambique. Thus, the case study represents the most common pathway of LUC and biodiversity change in the world's largest savanna. Tree abundance, mammal occupancy, and tree- and mammal-species richness showed a non-linear relationship with agricultural expansion (characterised by the Land Division Index, LDI). These occurrence and diversity metrics increased at intermediate LDI (0.3 to 0.7), started decreasing beyond LDI > 0.7, and underwent high levels of decline at extreme levels of agricultural expansion (LDI > 0.9). Despite similarities in species richness responses, the two taxonomic groups showed contrasting β-diversity patterns in response to increasing LDI: increased dissimilarity among tree communities (heterogenisation) and high similarity among mammals (homogenisation). Our analysis along a gradient of landscape-scale land use intensification allows a novel understanding of the impacts of different levels of land conversion, which can help guide land use and restoration policy. Biodiversity loss in this miombo landscape was lower than would be inferred from existing global syntheses of biodiversity-land use relations for Africa or the tropics, probably because such syntheses take a fully converted landscape as the endpoint. As, currently, most African savanna landscapes are a mosaic of savanna habitats and small scale agriculture, biodiversity loss is probably lower than in current global estimates, albeit with a trend towards further conversion. However, at extreme levels of land use change (LDI > 0.9 or < 15% habitat cover) miombo biodiversity appears to be more sensitive to LUC than inferred from the meta-analyses. To mitigate the worst effects of land use on biodiversity, our results suggest that miombo landscapes should retain > 25% habitat cover and avoid LDI > 0.75—after which species richness of both groups begin to decline. Our findings indicate that tree diversity may be easier to restore from natural restoration than mammal diversity, which became spatially homogeneous.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBiodiversity and Conservation
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2021


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