Dynamics of grazing lawn formation: An experimental test of the role of scale-dependent processes

J.P.G.M. Cromsigt, H. Olff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

76 Citations (Scopus)


Grazing lawns are characteristic for African savanna grasslands, standing out as intensely grazed patches of stoloniferous grazing-tolerant grass species. Grazing lawn development has been associated with grazing and increased nutrient input by large migratory herds. However, we argue that in systems without mass migrations disturbances, other than direct grazing, drive lawn development. Such disturbances, e.g. termite activity or megaherbivore middens, also increase nutrient input and keep the bunch vegetation down for a prolonged time period. However, field observations show that not all such disturbances lead to grazing lawns. We hypothesize that the initial disturbance has to be of a minimal threshold spatial scale, for grazing intensity to be high enough to induce lawn formation. We experimentally tested this idea in natural tall savanna grassland. We mowed different-sized plots to simulate initial disturbances of different scales (six times during one year) and applied fertilizer to half of the plots during two years to simulate increased nutrient input by herbivores or termite activity. Allowing grazing by naturally occurring herbivores, we followed the vegetation development over more than three years. Grazing kept bunch grass short in coarser, fertilized plots, while grasses grew out toward their initial height in fine-scale and unfertilized plots. Moreover, lawn grasses strongly increased in cover in plots with an increased nutrient input but only after coarser scale disturbance. These results support our hypothesis that an increased nutrient input in combination with grazing indeed induces grazing lawn formation, but only above a threshold scale of the initial disturbance. Our results provide an alternative mechanism for the development of grazing lawns in systems that lack mass migrating herds. Moreover, it gives a new spatial dimension to the processes behind grazing lawn development, and hence help to understand how herbivores might create and maintain spatial heterogeneity in grassland systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1444-1452
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • plant-herbivore interactions
  • mixed-grass prairie
  • community structure
  • growth-responses
  • african savanna
  • salt-marsh
  • serengeti
  • vegetation
  • heterogeneity
  • grazers

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