Testing White’s Floristic Impoverishment Hypothesis in the Forest-Savanna Transition Zones of Africa

Mathew Rees, John l. Godlee, David J. Harris, Casey M. Ryan, Kyle G. Dexter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

In tropical Africa, forests and savannas are the two most widespread biomes and potentially represent alternative stable states with a divergent species composition. A classic, but untested, hypothesis posited by White (1983) suggests that the transition zones between forests and savannas contain a floristically impoverished assemblage, with few representatives from each biome. Further, the evolutionary dimension of diversity has received limited attention, despite its importance for understanding the biogeographic history of biomes. Here, we quantified species richness and several measures of evolutionary diversity in 1° grid cells, using c. 300,000 occurrence records of trees and shrubs combined with biome affiliation data for 3203 species. We found that assemblages in transition zones hold fewer woody species than assemblages in forest and savanna zones, as posited by White. However, transition zones hold more phylogenetic diversity than expected given their species richness, whether one considers forest and savanna assemblages separately or together. We also show that the Congo Basin forest has low levels of phylogenetic diversity, given the number of species, and highlight south-eastern African savannas as a centre of savanna woody species richness and phylogenetic diversity. Regions with high phylogenetic diversity, given the number of both forest and savanna species, were centred around the Dahomey Gap and Cameroon, mainly in transition zones. Overall, our study shows that even if floristically impoverished, transition zones hold unexpectedly high evolutionary diversity. This suggests that they are important centres of evolutionary innovation and diversification and/or serve as evolutionary crossroads, where lineages that diversified in contrasting environments coexist within a single area.
Original languageEnglish
Article number833
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2023


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