Drought and fire determine juvenile and adult woody diversity and dominance in a semi‐arid African savanna

Felix D. Trotter, Caroline E. R. Lehmann, Jason E. Donaldson, Happy E. Mangena, Catherine L. Parr, Sally Archibald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The aim of this study was to understand how communities of adult and juvenile (seedlings and saplings) woody plants were impacted by fire and the 2014–2016 El Niño drought in Kruger National Park, South Africa. We used a landscape-scale fire experiment spanning 2013–2019 in a semi-arid savanna in the central west of Kruger National Park (mean annual precipitation, 543 mm). Adult and juvenile woody species composition were recorded during and after the drought in 40 plots that experienced a mix of no fire, moderate fire, and frequent fire treatments. Using multivariate modeling, we related community composition in juvenile and adult woody plants to year of sampling and the experimental fire treatments. Post-drought, there was significant adult woody plant top-kill, especially in dominant species Dichrostachys cinerea (81% reduction in abundance), Acacia nigrescens (30%), and Combretum apiculatum (19%), but there was no significant change in adult species richness. Two years post-drought, abundance of all juveniles decreased by 35%, and species richness increased in juveniles in both the frequent fire (7%) and no fire treatments (32%). Counter-intuitively, the El Niño drought increased species richness of the woody plant community due to the recruitment of new species as juveniles, a potential lasting impact on diversity, and where different fire regimes were associated with differences in community composition. Drought events in semi-arid savannas could drive temporal dynamics in species richness and composition in previously unrecognized ways.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1015-1029
Issue number4
Early online date28 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jul 2022


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