Short-term effect of nutrient availability and rainfall distribution on biomass production and leaf nutrient content of savanna tree species

E.R. Barbosa, K.W. Tomlinson, L.G. Carvalheiro, K. Kirkman, S. de Bie, H.H.T. Prins, F. van Langevelde

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29 Citations (Scopus)


Changes in land use may lead to increased soil nutrient levels in many ecosystems (e.g. due to intensification of agricultural fertilizer use). Plant species differ widely in their response to differences in soil nutrients, and for savannas it is uncertain how this nutrient enrichment will affect plant community dynamics. We set up a large controlled short-term experiment in a semi-arid savanna to test how water supply (even water supply vs. natural rainfall) and nutrient availability (no fertilisation vs. fertilisation) affects seedlings’ above-ground biomass production and leaf-nutrient concentrations (N, P and K) of broadleafed and fine-leafed tree species. Contrary to expectations, neither changes in water supply nor changes in soil nutrient level affected biomass production of the studied species. By contrast, leaf-nutrient concentration did change significantly. Under regular water supply, soil nutrient addition increased the leaf phosphorus concentration of both fine-leafed and broad-leafed species. However, under uneven water supply, leaf nitrogen and phosphorus concentration declined with soil nutrient supply, this effect being more accentuated in broad-leafed species. Leaf potassium concentration of broad-leafed species was lower when growing under constant water supply, especially when no NPK fertilizer was applied. We found that changes in environmental factors can affect leaf quality, indicating a potential interactive effect between land-use changes and environmental changes on savanna vegetation: under more uneven rainfall patterns within the growing season, leaf quality of tree seedlings for a number of species can change as a response to changes in nutrient levels, even if overall plant biomass does not change. Such changes might affect herbivore pressure on trees and thus savanna plant community dynamics. Although longer term experiments would be essential to test such potential effects of eutrophication via changes in leaf nutrient concentration, our findings provide important insights that can help guide management plans that aim to preserve savanna biodiversity.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere92619
Number of pages9
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • semiarid savannas
  • mineral-nutrition
  • african savannas
  • large herbivores
  • nitrogen
  • plants
  • carbon
  • fire
  • phosphorus
  • responses


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