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Biocomplexity in large tree mortality: interactions between elephant, fire and landscape in an African savanna

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The vegetation dynamics of the savanna ecosystem are driven by complex interactions between biotic and abiotic factors, and thus are expected to exhibit emergent properties of biocomplexity. We explore the relative importance of static and dynamic drivers in explaining the patterns of mortality of large trees in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Data on large trees were collected from 22 transects in April 2006, and these transects were re‐sampled in November 2008. Of the 2546 individually‐identified trees that were re‐sampled, 290 (11.4%) died in the interim. We tested several competing hypotheses with varying levels of complexity, and found that mortality of large trees was affected mainly by both static (geophysical and landscape characteristics) and dynamic (elephant damage and fire) factors that were either additive or interactive in their effects. Elephant damage was the main predictor of tree mortality, but fire also played an important role depending on the landscape type. Other static variables such as position‐on‐slope, height below canopy, and altitude had weak effects in explaining tree mortality. These results indicate that keystone features such as large trees, show differential vulnerability to mortality that is landscape‐specific. For conservation managers, this implies that the dynamic drivers (elephant and fire) of tree mortality have to be managed at the specific landscape‐level. We suggest that this emergent biocomplexity in the spatial and temporal patterns of large tree mortality is not unique to the African savannas, but is likely widespread across heterogeneous landscapes.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Amarula Elephant Research Programme, School of Biological and Conservation Sciences, Univ. of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville Campus, Private Bag 54001, Durban 4000, South Africa

Publication date: April 1, 2012

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