African Savanna-Forest Boundary Dynamics: A 20-Year Study


Cuni-Sanchez A, White L, Calders K, Jeffery KJ, Abernethy K, Burt A, Disney M, Gilpin M, Gomez-Dans JL & Lewis SL (2016) African Savanna-Forest Boundary Dynamics: A 20-Year Study. PLoS ONE, 11 (6), Art. No.: e0156934.

Recent studies show widespread encroachment of forest into savannas with important consequences for the global carbon cycle and land-atmosphere interactions. However, little research has focused onin situmeasurements of the successional sequence of savanna to forest in Africa. Using long-term inventory plots we quantify changes in vegetation structure, above-ground biomass (AGB) and biodiversity of trees ≥10 cm diameter over 20 years for five vegetation types: savanna; colonising forest (F1), monodominant Okoume forest (F2); young Marantaceae forest (F3); and mixed Marantaceae forest (F4) in Lopé National Park, central Gabon, plus novel 3D terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) measurements to assess forest structure differences. Over 20 years no plot changed to a new stage in the putative succession, but F1 forests strongly moved towards the structure, AGB and diversity of F2 forests. Overall, savanna plots showed no detectable change in structure, AGB or diversity using this method, with zero trees ≥10 cm diameter in 1993 and 2013. F1 and F2 forests increased in AGB, mainly as a result of adding recruited stems (F1) and increased Basal Area (F2), whereas F3 and F4 forests did not change substantially in structure, AGB or diversity. Critically, the stability of the F3 stage implies that this stage may be maintained for long periods. Soil carbon was low, and did not show a successional gradient as for AGB and diversity. TLS vertical plant profiles showed distinctive differences amongst the vegetation types, indicating that this technique can improve ecological understanding. We highlight two points: (i) as forest colonises, changes in biodiversity are much slower than changes in forest structure or AGB; and (ii) all forest types store substantial quantities of carbon. Multi-decadal monitoring is likely to be required to assess the speed of transition between vegetation types.

PLoS ONE: Volume 11, Issue 6

Publication date30/06/2016
Publication date online30/06/2016
Date accepted by journal20/05/2016
PublisherPublic Library of Science