Why is abundance of herbaceous legumes low in African savanna? – A test with two model species.

Patrick G. Cech, Peter J. Edwards, Harry Olde Venterink

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11 Citations (Scopus)


Although fire is frequent in African savanna ecosystems and may cause considerable loss of nitrogen (N), N2-fixing herbaceous legumes--which could be expected to benefit from low N conditions--are usually not abundant. To investigate possible reasons for this scarcity, we conducted a pot experiment using two common plants of humid African savannas as model species, the legume Cassia mimosoides and the C4 grass Hyperthelia dissoluta. These species were grown at different levels of water, N and phosphorus (P), both in monoculture and in competition with each other. In the monocultures, yields were significantly increased by the combined addition of N and P in pots receiving high water supply. In pots with interspecific competition, the legume grew poorly unless P was added. Foliar ?15N values of legume plants grown in mixtures were considerably lower than those in monocultures, suggesting that rates of symbiotic N-fixation were higher in the presence of the grass. Grass ?15N values, however, were also lower in mixtures, while N concentrations were higher, indicating a rapid transfer of N from the legume to the grass. We conclude that the main reason for the low abundance of C. mimosoides is not low P availability as such, but a greater ability of H. dissoluta to compete for soil N and P, and a much higher N-use efficiency. If other C4 grasses have a similar competitive advantage, it could explain why herbaceous legumes are generally sparse in African savannas. We encourage others to test these findings using species from other types of savanna vegetation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)580-589
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • grass-legume competition

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