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Grassland structural heterogeneity in a savanna is driven more by productivity differences than by consumption differences between lawn and bunch grasses

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      Savanna grasslands are characterized by high spatial heterogeneity in vegetation structure, aboveground biomass and nutritional quality, with high quality short-grass grazing lawns forming mosaics with patches of tall bunch grasses of lower quality. This heterogeneity can arise because of local differences in consumption, because of differences in productivity, or because both processes enforce each other (more production and consumption). However, the relative importance of both processes in maintaining mosaics of lawn and bunch grassland types has not been measured. Also their interplay been not been assessed across landscape gradients. In a South African savanna, we, therefore, measured the seasonal changes in primary production, nutritional quality and herbivore consumption (amount and percentage) of grazing lawns and adjacent bunch grass patches across a rainfall gradient. We found both higher amounts of primary production and, to a smaller extent, consumption for bunch grass patches. In addition, for bunch grasses primary production increased towards higher rainfall while foliar nitrogen concentrations decreased. Foliar nitrogen concentrations of lawn grasses decreased much less with increasing rainfall. Consequently, large herbivores targeted the biomass produced on grazing lawns with on average 75 % of the produced biomass consumed. We conclude that heterogeneity in vegetation structure in this savanna ecosystem is better explained by small-scale differences in productivity between lawn and bunch grass vegetation types than by local differences in consumption rates. Nevertheless, the high nutritional quality of grazing lawns is highly attractive and, therefore, important for the maintenance of the heterogeneity in species composition (i.e. grazing lawn maintenance).

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      The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00442-016-3698-y) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

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      Most cited references 63

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      Ecology of a Grazing Ecosystem: The Serengeti

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        Grazing Lawns: Animals in Herds, Plant Form, and Coevolution

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          Species effects on nitrogen cycling: a test with perennial grasses


            Author and article information

            [1 ]Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences, University of Groningen, P.O. Box 11103, 9700 CC Groningen, The Netherlands
            [2 ]Department of Ecological Science, VU University Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands
            Author notes

            Communicated by Katherine L. Gross.

            +31614404939 ,
            Springer Berlin Heidelberg (Berlin/Heidelberg )
            13 August 2016
            13 August 2016
            : 182
            : 3
            : 841-853
            © The Author(s) 2016

            Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

            Funded by: Ubbo Emmius Grant, University of Groningen
            Community Ecology–Original Research
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            © Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016


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