Patterns and implications of transformation in semi-arid succulent thicket, South Africa

Lechmere-Oertel, R G
Kerley, G I H
Cowling, R M
Journal of Arid Environments
Publication Year: 
Transformation of South African succulent thicket in response to grazing is widespread and characterized by the extensive replacement of dense closed-canopy thicket with a [`]pseudo-savanna' of remnant trees with an ephemeral field layer. In this study, we examined the patterns of transformation in a semi-arid succulent thicket ecosystem using replicated fence line contrasts. We quantified the changes in plant species and functional diversity, physiognomy and biomass. We tested whether the remnant tree guild of the transformed thicket is in a stable state, using aerial photographs and ground-truthing to track the survivorship of canopy trees over 60 years in transformed landscapes. We investigated the impacts of transformation on recruitment into the canopy tree guild by measuring seedling establishment across the fence line contrasts. Transformation results in a significant loss of plant and functional diversity. There is a significant reduction in the biomass and structural complexity of the vegetation, both vertically and horizontally. The canopy tree guild in transformed thicket is not stable owing to ongoing adult mortality and little successful recruitment. These results are interpreted in a framework of ecosystem functioning and long-term stability. We suggest that the pseudo-savanna typical of transformed succulent thicket is not a stable alternative state to intact thicket, but rather an intermediate stage in a trajectory towards a highly desertified state where only the ephemeral grasses and forbs persist.
Name of Journal: 
Journal of Arid Environments
Resource Type: 
Document Type: 
Journal Issue/Article
Grassland Society of Southern Africa

The Grassland Society of Southern Africa (GSSA) is involved and concerned with the science and practice of range and pasture management. This broad field involves primarily the use and conservation of natural resources. It encompasses applied fields such as livestock production, wildlife management, nature conservation, water catchment management and range and mine-dump rehabilitation. The disciplines include, amongst others, ecology, botany zoology, range and pasture science, animal science, soil science and genetics. This collection includes journal articles from the African Journal of Range and Forage Science as well as related articles and reports from throughout the Southern African region.