Herbivores as architects of savannas: inducing and modifying spatial vegetation patterning

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In this paper, we address the question whether and through which mechanisms herbivores can induce spatial patterning in savanna vegetation, and how the role of herbivory as a determinant of vegetation patterning changes with herbivore density and the pre-existing pattern of vegetation. We thereto developed a spatially explicit simulation model, including growth of grasses and trees, vertical zonation of browseable biomass, and spatially explicit foraging by grazers and browsers. We show that herbivores can induce vegetation patterning when two key assumptions are fulfilled. First, herbivores have to increase the attractiveness of a site while foraging so that they will revisit this site, e.g. through an increased availability or quality of forage. Second, foraging should be spatially explicit, e.g. when foraging at a site influences vegetation at larger spatial scales or when vegetation at larger spatial scales influences the selection and utilisation of a site. The interaction between these two assumptions proved to be crucial for herbivores to produce spatial vegetation patterns, but then only at low to intermediate herbivore densities. High herbivore densities result in homogenisation of vegetation. Furthermore, our model shows that the pre-existing spatial pattern in vegetation influences the process of vegetation patterning through herbivory. However, this influence decreases when the heterogeneity and dominant scale of the initial vegetation decreases. Hence, the level of adherence of the herbivores to forage in pre-existing patches increases when these pre-existing patches increase in size and when the level of vegetation heterogeneity increases. The findings presented in this paper, and critical experimentation of their ecological validity, will increase our understanding of vegetation patterning in savanna ecosystems, and the role of plant¿herbivore interactions therein.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)543-554
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • tree-grass coexistence
  • african savanna
  • semiarid savannas
  • simulation-model
  • arid ecosystems
  • grazing systems
  • dynamics
  • fire
  • heterogeneity
  • stability


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