The effects of herbivory by a mega- and mesoherbivore on tree recruitment in Sand Forest, South Africa

D. D.Georgette Lagendijk, Robin L. Mackey, Bruce R. Page, Rob Slotow

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Herbivory by megaherbivores on woody vegetation in general is well documented; however studies focusing on the individual browsing effects of both mega- and mesoherbivore species on recruitment are scarce. We determined these effects for elephant Loxodonta africana and nyala Tragelaphus angasii in the critically endangered Sand Forest, which is restricted to east southern Africa, and is conserved mainly in small reserves with high herbivore densities. Replicated experimental treatments (400 m2) in a single forest patch were used to exclude elephant, or both elephant and nyala. In each treatment, all woody individuals were identified to species and number of stems, diameter and height were recorded. Results of changes after two years are presented. Individual tree and stem densities had increased in absence of nyala and elephant. Seedling recruitment (based on height and diameter) was inhibited by nyala, and by elephant and nyala in combination, thereby preventing recruitment into the sapling stage. Neither nyala or elephant significantly reduced sapling densities. Excluding both elephant and nyala in combination enhanced recruitment of woody species, as seedling densities increased, indicating that forest regeneration is impacted by both mega- and mesoherbivores. The Sand Forest tree community approached an inverse J-shaped curve, with the highest abundance in the smaller size classes. However, the larger characteristic tree species in particular, such as Newtonia hildebrandtii, were missing cohorts in the middle size classes. When setting management goals to conserve habitats of key importance, conservation management plans need to consider the total herbivore assemblage present and the resulting browsing effects on vegetation. Especially in Africa, where the broadest suite of megaherbivores still persists, and which is currently dealing with the 'elephant problem', the individual effects of different herbivore species on recruitment and dynamics of forests and woodlands are important issues which need conclusive answers.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere17983
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 28 Mar 2011
Externally publishedYes


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