Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Connecting forests and savannahs

Pre-montane forest - note the high diversity of tree species, Lake Duluti, July 2011
In my last post I said I's intended to talk about the connections between forests and savannahs, but got distracted by pretty birds. So I thought I'd do it now instead, becuase it's still an interesting topic. Once upon a time, a surprisingly recently time ago, there were rather more forests in East Africa than there are today: even in the relatively well-wooded Eastern Arc mountains, it seems like nearly 80% of the prehistoric forests have been lost. And they were an important part of the landscape - both in their own right (harbouring massive biodiversity with hundreds of plant, vertebrate and invertebrate groups endemic to the Eastern Arc), but also through the role they play for many savannah animals.
Montane forest in Arusha NP is kept open by grazing and browsing - that's a C3 grss understory. June 2011

We've already seen that forest and savannah can both occupy areas where the rainfall is over 1000mm per year, and that fire seems to be the key factor determining which actually wins out. We've seen how riverine forest is a forest habitat within the savannah biome, and we probably also know that thickets are fairly similar too. But true forests are different, and we don't usually think of them as connected to the savannah at all. Yes, forests are different - they're not dominated by C4 grasses (though they can still have some pretty thick understory of C3 grass) as we've seen defines the savannah biome, but I think this distinction is unfortunate as they are connected, at times vitally so.
Forest C3 grass species - short, round leaves are typical. Duluti July 2011

Yes, it really is a grass!

For example, the loss of forest in the Mau escarpment that feeds the Mara river is believed to be responsible for the altered hydrology of the Mara river within the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem - less forest means less water is soaked up by the landscape, so more flows down the river in the wet season and less remains to flow during the dry season. More directly, East African forests provide homes for many of the species more typically associated with savannahs. You might not visit Arusha NP to see the elephants or buffalo, but they're there. And what's more, those elephants move - they go down the Ngara Nanyuki river and down onto the savannahs of West Kilimanjaro. Where, of course, they must meet elephants that have done the same from the forests of Kilimanjaro and those that have come out of Amboseli. The same seasonal movements of elephants into and out of forests is a regular pattern, whereever such movements remain possible. Typically, savannah elephants will move into the moister forest habitats during the dry season when food becomes scarcer and poorer quality on the savannahs. But elephants aren't the only animals making this movement - in other areas where the savannahs are moister than around West Kili, buffalo and several other species make the movements too, though it's usually a shorter-distance movement and less seasonal.
Buffalo (and other forest mammals...) Arusha NP, December 2009

We all know of the regular movements and migrations of many ungulates. This is usually driven in part by the need for dry-season forage (we'll have to post more about migrations later). But what's interesting even about the well-known Serengeti migration, if that's its variable both in route taken, and timing. And the key driver is food and water availability - if there's food and water around, the animals stay longer, if they see/smell rain somewhere else, they shift their routes to exploit it. This is a very sensible response to living in a highly variable environemnt, and it seems that many savannah animals are similarly flexible when they need to be, even if they don't show large-scale and well-known migrations. So the forest and thickets of the northern Mara can be heaving with wildlife during droughts, and provide an important buffer for animal populations when conditions get really harsh. Indeed, the loss of forest in Amboseli is believed to be one of the key changes that meant the drought there in 2009/10 had such a serious impact. It seems that many animals have their regular dry-season refugia (often wetlands like Silale in Tarangire) but if these dry up in a really bad drought, they'll move to the nearest forest and tough it out there. But if the forest patches have disappeared - particularly the lower-elevation forests - or are now separated by fences, then the animals can't do this ocassional movement and there's going to be trouble. So although true forests aren't usually considered part of the savannah biome, they certainly have a role to play in a well-functioning ecosystem. And what's more, they're a great change from the savannahs for visitors to East Africa, so don't avoid them just because you won't find lions there!

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