Tree distribution on a steep environmental gradient in an arid savanna
The structure of savannas ranges from scrub to woodland over broad geographical gradients. Here we examine the hypothesis that water availability is a major determinant of these structural differences by ascertaining the relationship between water availability and tree growth across a steep moisture gradient. Location
The study site is a sub-tropical savanna, with a mean annual precipitation of 400 mm, located in the Phugwane river basin, Kruger National Park, Limpopo Province, South Africa. Methods
We determined plant moisture stress using xylem pressure potentials, stem growth using dendrometer bands, and estimated the water sources available to plants using stable hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios. The primary objective was to understand tree growth relative to available water along an environmental gradient. Results
We found that Philenoptera violacea trees growing close to the stream have lower water stress (least negative xylem pressure potentials) and higher cumulative growth than those growing away from the stream. The stem growth of P. violacea was characterized by steady incremental growth and could not be related to antecedent rainfall. Colophospermum mopane trees experienced higher water stress, yet trees growing adjacent to the stream achieved the highest cumulative growth rates over the study period. The growth of C. mopane could be clearly linked to antecedent rainfall, and most growth was achieved during short growth pulses that followed rainfall events. δ18O values become progressively more enriched in the heavier isotope with distance from the stream, suggesting that access to groundwater decreases with distance from the stream side. The isotopic data suggest that P. violacea has access to groundwater, but that C. mopane does not. Main conclusions
Our results show that water stress increases with distance from the stream side as a result of reduced access to groundwater. Trees without access to deep water adopt an opportunistic growth strategy.