Understanding the monodominance of Acacia drepanolobium in East African savannas: insights from demographic data
Patches of savanna dominated by Acacia drepanolobium occur throughout East Africa on nutrient-rich vertisols, also known as black cotton soils. We assessed the survival and recruitment for all freestanding trees with diameter at knee height (dkh) ≥ 10 mm in one of such mono-dominated patches (47 ha) at the Mpala Research Centre, Kenya, with the aim of identifying demographic traits that might explain the dominance of this species. Over a mean 6-year interval, mortality and recruitment rates in the habitat were 4.55%/year and 1.42%/year respectively, resulting in a net loss of 17.8% of the initial individuals. Of the 30 species recorded from the first census, 11 decreased in abundance, nine increased, and the remainder 10 did not change in abundance. The monodominant A. drepanolobium had a high mortality (4.69%/year), a low recruitment (1.31%/year), and a 19% population decline. There was no evidence of conspecific negative density dependence for this species. Rather, we found a statistically significant positive correlation between the number of conspecific neighbors and individual-level probability of survival, consistent with the “shared defense” benefits that symbiotic ant colonies occupying multiple trees can confer to these latter in a small neighborhood. Thus, mortality of A. drepanolobium was higher in areas where it occurred in lower densities, which resulted in an increase in the spatial aggregation of conspecifics. Mortality increased with dkh size classes and was mostly caused by elephants and stem-boring beetles. The demographic rates during the study period in theory are inconsistent with those of monodominant species. The protection against herbivory conferred by mutualistic ants associated with this species remains the most probable explanation of its dominance in this habitat.