Modelling ungulate dependence on higher quality forage under large trees in African savannahs

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In African savannahs, large trees improve grass quality, particularly in dry and nutrient poor areas. Enhanced below-canopy grass nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus contents should therefore attract and benefit grazers. To predict whether ungulates really need these forage quality islands we focused on four grazer species, i.e., zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, and warthog, differing in body size and digestive system. We confronted literature estimations of their feeding requirements with forage availability and quality, observed in three South African savannah systems, through linear modelling. The model predicted the proportion of below-canopy grass that grazers should include in their diet to meet their nutritional requirements. During the wet season, the model predicted that all animals could satisfy their daily nutrient requirements when feeding on a combination of below- and outside-canopy grasses. However, wildebeest, having relatively high nutrient demands, could meet their nutrient requirements only by feeding almost exclusively below canopies. During the dry season, all animals could gain almost twice as much digestible protein when feeding on below - compared to outside-canopy forage. Nonetheless, only warthogs could satisfy their nutrient requirements - when feeding almost exclusively on below-canopy grasses. The other ungulate species could not meet their phosphorus demands by feeding at either site without exceeding their maximum fibre intake, indicating the unfavourable conditions during the dry season. We conclude that grazing ungulates, particularly warthog, zebra, and buffalo, actually depend on the available below-canopy grass resources. Our model therefore helps to quantify the importance of higher quality forage patches beneath savannah trees. The composition of grazer communities depending on below-canopy grasses can be anticipated if grazer food requirements and the abundance of large trees in savannahs are known. The model suggests that the conservation of large single-standing trees in savannahs is crucial for maintenance of locally grazing herbivores
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)161-169
JournalBasic and Applied Ecology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • herbivores
  • serengeti
  • selection
  • cattle
  • diet
  • determinants
  • wildebeest
  • ruminants
  • nutrition
  • nutrient

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