Fires foster biological diversity on the African savanna

As an ecology student back in days of yore, I was introduced to the classic mutualism between ants and swollen-thorn acacia trees. In this mutually beneficial relationship, ants protect acacia trees by biting and projecting very smelly substances at hungry herbivores, and by pruning encroaching branches of plant competitors. In return for these services, acacia trees provide the ants with homes in the form of swollen thorns, and in some cases also provide food for their defenders.

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Swollen thorns of Acacia drepanlobium occupied by C. nigriceps. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

I always assumed there were limits to what these ants could do. I knew that elephants were a constant problem for trees trying to get established on the African savanna. I figured, wrongly, that ants could not do much to counter a determined thick-skinned elephant. But as Ryan Sensenig describes, ants will swarm any intruding elephant, rushing into the elephant’s very sensitive trunk and mouth, biting it and, in some cases, exuding a chemical compound that is very offensive to an elephant’s keen sense of smell. So don’t mess with these ants if you can help it!

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The Laikipia Plateau has one of the few growing elephant populations in East Africa. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

Fires play an important role in savanna ecosystems, killing many trees before they can get established, and creating a mosaic of burned and unburned areas which vary in grass quality and quantity, and in the abundance of acacia trees (and other species as well). Recently burned grasslands tend to be lower in grass abundance and higher in grass nutrient levels. In a previous study of controlled burns, Sensenig and his colleagues showed that larger animals, such as elephants, tended to graze in unburned areas, which had more grass – albeit of lower quality. Returning seven years after the burn, he was surprised to find that elephants, which eat both trees and grass, had shifted to the burned sites in preference to unburned sites. He thus wondered whether fire was having an impact on the ant-acacia mutualisms that defend acacias from elephants and other large herbivores.

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Sunset strikes an Acacia xanthophloea on Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

Ants do not share trees. In Mpala Research Centre in the Laikipia Plateau of Kenya, there are four mutually-exclusive species of ants that live in Acacia drepanolobium trees: Crematogaster sjostedti, C. mimosae, C. nigriceps, and Tetraponera penzigi.

Sensenig and his colleagues wanted to know whether the controlled burns had a long-lasting effect on ant species distribution on acacia trees. The researchers surveyed 12 plots that had been burned seven years previously and an equal number of unburned plots to see how burns affected which ant species were present.

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Goshen College research students estimate ant densities on Acacia drepanolobium trees in the Kenya Longterm Exclosure Experiment. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

They found that C. nigriceps was more common in acacias from burned areas while the other three species were more common in trees from unburned areas.

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Why were there more C. nigriceps ants in previously burned areas? One explanation is that perhaps C. nigriceps is better at avoiding getting burned by fire, or else is better at recolonizing after a fire. To look for species difference in response to fire, the researchers simulated fires by burning elephant dung and dried grass in 3-gallon metal buckets, creating a small sustained smoke source. They stationed observers every 50 meters along a 500 meter transect for the first experiment, and a 1.8 km transect for the second experiment. They then measured ant-evacuation rate by counting the number of ants moving down the trunk. There were some very pronounced differences, with C. nigriceps having the highest evacuation rate, C. mimosae also showing a strong smoke response, and the other two species showing little evidence of any response.

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Evacuation rate for each species in response to smoke.

C. mimosae generally prevails when it battles a colony of C. nigriceps. These results indicate that the subordinate C. nigriceps is able to maintain its presence in the community, in part, by taking advantage of its superior performance when it encounters a fire. The researchers also found some evidence that C. nigriceps is better at recolonizing after a fire than is C. mimosae. So despite being the subordinate species, C. nigriceps is abundant in this ecosystem.

Returning to those elephants, the researchers describe one final experiment in which some plots had a series of fences that excluded herbivores, while other plots were open to herbivores, including elephants.

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In this experiment, as well, there were burned and unburned plots. In general, there were more ants present when herbivores were present, as the trees invested more in swollen thorns and in ant food (in the form of nectar) to attract protective ants. In addition, ants were more abundant in unburned plots than in plots that had been previously burned, with the exception of C. nigriceps when herbivores were excluded.

Ecologists have long known that fire maintains savanna ecosystems by preventing the grasslands from being overgrown by trees. This study shows that fires shift ant community structure in favor of the subordinate ant species (C. nigriceps), resulting in a higher diversity of ant species overall. The researchers suggest that if fires become more common in savannas, elephants may become more attracted to acacias that harbor a reduced (or nonexistent) cast of defenders, which could lead to a further reduction in the abundance of acacia trees and their mutualistic ants.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Sensenig, R. L., Kimuyu, D. K., Ruiz Guajardo, J. C., Veblen, K. E., Riginos, C., & Young, T. P. (2017). Fire disturbance disrupts an acacia ant–plant mutualism in favor of a subordinate ant species. Ecology, 98(5), 1455-1464.Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Highly disturbed birds

About 50 million years ago, the fast-moving Indo-Australian plate crashed into the Eurasian plate, giving rise to the Indian peninsula, and beginning a process of faulting and folding that ultimately formed our present day Himalaya Mountains. This process continues today, with the Himalayas still rising about 5 mm per year. The region is very variable, with tremendous glaciers and snowfields at high elevations, and forests and grasslands at lower elevations.

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The lead Author, Paul Elsen, stands in front of the Tirthan Valley.  The highest peaks range up to 4900 meters.

The variation in elevation, climate and soils make the Himalyan region in northern India a mecca of biological diversity, hosting over 10,000 identified plant species and about 1000 bird species. As in most of India, human population growth is putting enormous pressure on the forested regions, partly as a source of wood for heating and cooking, which has led to extensive deforestation. In concert, substantial forested areas are being converted to farms or pastures to feed the growing population. Paul Elsen and his colleagues wanted to know how these transformations of forests to cropland and pastures were affecting bird population across the region. They were particularly interested in how birds survived the winter, a period of climatic stress and food scarcity, when many of the birds descend from their high elevation breeding grounds to lower elevations that are nearer to human populations.

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Chestnut-headed Tesia, an altitudinal migrant found in high elevation forests in summer, and in forests and agricultural lands in winter. Credit: Prashant Negi.

The researchers set up three transects across four different landscapes (total of 12 transects), representing four levels of disturbance. The undisturbed landscape was primary forest in the Great Himalayan National Park. A second disturbance type – low intensity – retained a mixture of community forest used for timber and fuel, and also included some small agricultural plots. A third disturbance type – medium intensity – had small wooded areas, but was dominated by mixed agriculture including orchards and a variety of crops such as grains, beans and garlic. The final disturbance type – high intensity – was used as pasture, had mostly grasses and very few trees or crops.

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Four land-use types. Credit Paul Elsen

The basic research protocol was literally a walk in the woods. Elsen walked (slowly) along the same trail in each transect three times during the winter season, and identified and counted all of the birds. Other researchers identified, measured and counted the plants growing along the transects.

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Lead field assistant, Lal Chand (left), and co-author Kalyanaraman Ramnarayan (right) conduct plant surveys near the top of the world.

 

Elsen was stunned by what his team discovered. Before beginning this study, he had spent about a year in the Himalayas within intact forests doing other PhD-related research. His travels into surrounding villages showed significant bird activity, but he assumed these birds were primarily species associated with humans or more open habitats. He expected decreasing bird diversity and abundance with increasing agricultural intensification, where the bird communities in intact primary forest would be teeming with species in high densities, and the areas with mixed agriculture and intensively grazed pastures would have just a few species. The data below paint a contrasting picture.

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Mean and standard error of (a) bird abundance and (b) number of bird species per site across the four land-use types.

Primary forest hosted the fewest number of birds and the fewest species of birds. Among the three disturbance levels, low- and medium-intensity had greater abundance and diversity than did the high-intensity disturbed sites. At least in the winter, low- and medium-intensity disturbed landscapes can be beneficial to bird populations. Elsen suggests that birds are attracted to the tremendous amount of food available in the agricultural lands, such as fruiting trees and shrubs, even in winter. Some birds can consume these fruits, while other birds consume the yummy energy-rich insects that are attracted to the fruit. There are also plenty of seeds available for granivorous birds. But high-intensity disturbed landscapes lack these benefits, leading to fewer forest-adapted bird species, which are replaced by open-country or generalist bird species.

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Pastoralist and his goats in a high-intensity disturbed site. Credit: Prashant Nagi.

 

The researchers caution that we still don’t know have a clear picture of how birds use different landscapes during the breeding season, although preliminary data indicate that more species are unique to primary forests during breeding season than in winter, and that fewer species inhabit intensively grazed pastures during breeding season than in winter. Consequently, Elsen and his colleagues recommend a holistic conservation approach, which recognizes the importance of conserving large portions of intact primary forest, while at the same time preserving landscapes with low- and medium-intensity agriculture.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Elsen, P. R., Kalyanaraman, R., Ramesh, K., & Wilcove, D. S. (2016). The importance of agricultural lands for Himalayan birds in winter. Conservation Biology 31 (2): 416-426. Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.