Contrasting architecture of key African and Australian savanna tree taxa drives intercontinental structural divergence

Glenn R. Moncrieff*, Caroline E R Lehmann, Jan Schnitzler, James Gambiza, Pierre Hiernaux, Casey M. Ryan, Charlie M. Shackleton, Richard J. Williams, Steven I. Higgins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aim: We examined differences in the architecture of African and Australian savanna trees. We sought to attribute variation in tree architecture to current environments, wood density and phylogeny, and thereby elucidate the relative importance of biogeographic idiosyncrasies versus current factors in underpinning architectural differences. Location: Africa and Australia. Methods: We compiled canopy diameters and stem diameters from 4867 trees of 97 species and heights and stem diameters from 10,786 trees of 155 species from a range of African and Australian savanna ecosystems and climates. Using Bayesian methods we first estimated continental-scale savanna tree allometries, ignoring species differences. We then examined continental differences in species-specific allometries accounting for trait covariation using a phylogeny of our study species. Environmental variables and wood density data were included as covariates, allowing us to assess the potential underpinning of regional differences in tree allometries by differences in current environments and traits. Results: Substantial allometric differences exist between Australian and African savanna trees. Australian trees are on average 6m taller at 20cm diameter, with a 53% smaller canopy area than African trees. However, this extreme continental-scale variation is driven by the architecture of only a few taxa in this study - Vachellia and Senegalia versus Eucalyptus and Corymbia - rather than systematic differences between species, wood density and environment. These same genera often dominate the woody strata of South African and Australian savannas, respectively. Main conclusions: Stark differences in the architecture of African and Australian savanna tree taxa are not a product of environmental differences and are not consistent across species. Rather, the most likely explanation is the different evolutionary histories of African and Australian savannas, which share no woody species. We consider that these architectural differences are likely to impact regional patterns of woody biomass accumulation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1235-1244
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


  • Africa
  • Allometry
  • Australia
  • Bayesian allometry
  • Bayesian phylogenetic regression
  • Eucalyptus
  • Savanna
  • Senegalia
  • Tree architecture
  • Vachellia


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