Thursday, 3 November 2011

Nutrients in the savannah biome

Of all the 'big four' processes that drive the ecology of the savannah, I think I've probably spent least time talking about nutrients. That might be surprising, because in some ways the cycling of nutrients is what helps us define an ecosystem. (Ecosystem is, in fact, a rather poorly defined term, but if there's anything that separates a habitat from an ecosystem, it's the fact that most nutrients and energy are well recycled within an ecosystem, whist habitats, once you ignore solar inputs, often have large in and out flows of nutrients and energy. So an ecosystem, such as Serengeti, can have lots of different habitats. On the other hand, a biome is a globally occuring set of similarly functioning ecosystems - savannah ecosystems around the world form the savannah biome. But let's get back to the point...) Nutrients are, however, extremely importand in shaping savannah habitats, both at large scales, and fine scale.
Termite mound, Mwiba Ranch, August 2011

The large scale patterns of nutrient availablity lead to different vegetation types in different areas, and drive large-scale migrations, both issues we've touched on already in this blog. So today I'm going to concentrate on the smaller-scale processes that act over just a few metres, but still have important roles to play in the ecology of the savannah. Let's start with what might well be the most important nutrient cyclers of the savannah - the termites. On the right is a typical termite mound in the middle of the dry season - note there's lots of uneaten grass in the foreground and background, but on and around the mound itself, there's nothing left but nibbled grass stems. Why? Because the termites have been busy working in the surrounding area to gather up bits of vegetation, and bring them to their mound. By gathering vegetation, then processing it in one spot, they concentrate nutrients at this spot, and the grass growing there is richer and better food than grass growing further away. The termite mounds become a nutrient hotspot, and animals know how nutrient rich their food is. Particularly in the dry season, when they only have dead matter to graze, small differences in nutrient content are very important. And even in the wet season these are preferred foraging areas and are often kept permanently short, as a grazing lawn. Once the process starts, in fact, it becomes self-perpetuating, as regularly grazed grass keeps growing new shoots and new shoots are always tastier (full of nutrients and low in the silica (a natural glass) grasses use as defence against grazing.), prompting more grazing and keeping the grass short, perhaps even spreading beyond the original termite mound as the additional benefits accrue - precicely the definition of a grazing lawn, and a very obvious example of how important the nutrient cycling carried out by termite really is at the large, observable scale we work at.

Impala Midden, Manyara Ranch, Nov 2010

Dikdik midden - what a lot of poo! Manyara Ranch, Nov 2010
The next process that's concentrating nutrients in the savannah is also so obvious that we often miss it - animals that use middens concentrate nutrients over several years in one spot. This nice impala midden shows another feature you often see about middens - again, the grass all around has been grazed to nearly nothing. And for exactly the same reason as before - the nutrient hotspots great lush grass that is heavily grazed, neighbouring grasses are also grazed and the impact spreads out to create a grazing lawn. (In fact, this one has suffered rather from cattle grazing too, but they respond to the same processes as the wildlife.) As you can see, the grazing is much more widespread than simply the focal nutrient spot, but it's quite possible that this midden and the others you can see around are the original cause of the heavy grazing over the whole of this little stretch. Always good things to point out when you're on a walk, especially if there are children about like my two...
Elephant diggings near Gibbs Farm, Dec 2010

See the tusk marks?! Elephant digging - there was also buffalo horn marks!

And for now I'll leave one final special case of nutrient hotspots impacting savannah ecology - the rare locations of mineral deposits utilised by a range of wildlife, but most famously by elephants. In some places, elephants have dug caves over 160m deep into mountainsides in search of nutrients (most famously on Mt Elgon where elephants have dug in search of calcium, sodium and magnesium). Other animals also come from far afield in search of the nutrient rich soil, leaving wide paths through the forest. These photos are from Ngorongoro, behind Gibbs Farm, where elephants are primarily searching for Molybdenum, selenium and cobalt. These micronutrients (nutrients required only in tiny amounts) are important for animal health and animals with deficiencies are generally rather unenergetic and not alert to the dangers of the world. So, rather a useful thing. And, of course, you don't have to head specially out to these caves (though it's worth a walk, and the birding around there is great!) to show this sort of activity to folk - several cuttings ont he main ascent road from Laodare gate to the crater viewpoint show obvious evidence of nocturnal mining by elephants, and the rock here is just as nutrient rich as in the caves at Gibbs.

So, next time your out and about, have a look for signs of nutrient concentrations, and see what's responding to it. And then remember the large-scale variations in nutrients too, that are so important for other processes!

1 comment:

  1. I once watched a movie on how the elephants, buffalo, and bushbok would travel into the caves on MT. Elgon to get salt and other minerals. And it make me realize how sometimes the problem for herbivores is not what in your food(poisons) but what is not. And I understand how mineral and vitamin deficiency s can make them easier prey for predators. It is also amazing how nutrients are recycled back into the ecosystem; in the of dead plants and animals and waste products. In Colorado in the fall the deciduous trees do this by losing their leaves in the fall and trees because of this can accumulate great stores of nutrients for the winter! The snow melt also disperses the nutrients because when the snow melts the water seeps into the ground and the decays plant matter, whats left of it goes into the ground with it. Truly an amazing cycle!