Biomass and biodiversity of African savanna woodlands: spatial patterns, environmental correlates and responses to land-use change
McNicol, Iain Morton
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Tropical savannas and woodlands are the dominant vegetation cover in Southern Africa covering 4 million km2. Their large spatial extent means they are potentially a globally important store of biomass carbon with implications for global climate, and an area of high biodiversity value. They provide natural resources such as food, fuel and timber that help sustain the livelihoods of over 100 million people. The ability of these savanna woodlands to maintain these important ecological functions is under question due to increases in land use and land cover change. This thesis addresses a set of science questions aimed at (i) improving our knowledge of the amount of carbon and biodiversity stored in these ecosystems and how they co-vary, (ii) how these variables are spatially distributed at landscape scales and the factors which underlie these patterns, and (iii) how they respond over time to human disturbance. In Chapter 2 I examine how patterns in aboveground woody carbon storage (AGC) are linked to differences in forest structure, tree species diversity and floristic composition across a recently established network of 25 permanent sample plots in south-east Tanzania. Large stems were a significant contributor to plot-level AGC stocks with the top 3% of individuals (>40cm) in terms of size containing 35% of the total measured C. This data can potentially be used to simplify future measurements of biomass in these systems. Tree species diversity was positively related to AGC indicating the potential to align forest conservation efforts. The linear relationship suggests a functional relationship between the variables and is consistent with ecological theory on niche complementarity and selection effects, however based on the available data the mechanisms underlying this relationship can only be theorised. Changes in tree species composition were also noted across plots with differences in vegetation structure between plots explaining 16% of the variation in composition, with environmental differences related to climate and soils explaining only 3%. In Chapter 3, the focus shifts to understanding larger-scale spatial patterns in AGC. Field plots are spatially limited in this regard, therefore radar remote sensing data was used to generate a map of AGC in order to improve our knowledge on what principally controls its spatial variability at landscape scales. Results showed that factors related topography, climate and soils explained very little of the variation in C stocks across the landscape (r2 = 15 – 20%). Differences in slope angle and topographic position were important in discriminating between low biomass savannas and moderate biomass woodlands, while differences in annual precipitation were more important in separating woodlands and denser forests. A large proportion of the variation in C stocks (~80%) was unexplained highlighting the role of unmeasured variables. It is suggested that fire may play a key role in shaping patterns in tree species composition and C stocks across these landscapes. This data has important implications for a local REDD+ project which is aiming to generate carbon credits through improved fire management. In the second part of the thesis the attention shifts to understanding the long-term ecological impacts of shifting cultivation and the sensitivity and resilience of these woodlands to anthropogenic change. In Chapter 4 I examined how carbon stored in trees and soils recover across a 40-year chronosequence of abandoned agricultural land, and how this patchy disturbance impacts spatial pattern in tree species composition and diversity. I show that re-growing woodlands can act as carbon sinks through the accumulation of woody biomass (0.83 tC ha-1 yr-1), with soil texture having no clear impact on accumulation rates. Re-growing woodlands were also found to contain considerable biodiversity value by promoting novel species assemblages. Bulk soil carbon stocks appeared to be largely unaffected by the full cycle of shifting cultivation. However in Chapter 5 I show evidence of a previously unquantified legacy effect of land clearance on soil CO2 production with more recently abandoned fields (c. 6 years) exhibiting significantly higher efflux rates than the older abandonments (15 -25 years) and mature woodlands. Total soil nitrogen was the most important predictor of soil respiration across the plots (r2 = 0.3) followed by fine root density (r2 = 0.12). Soils in the younger sites were found to be more nitrogen rich which was used to explain the greater CO2 fluxes in these areas, however, it is still unclear why this pattern exists. The thesis concludes by discussing the wider implications of the results, as well as outlining further work needed to solidify some of the conclusions drawn in this thesis.