Root trait variation in African savannas

  • Benjamin J. WigleyEmail author
  • A. Carla Staver
  • Roma Zytkowiak
  • Andrzej M. Jagodzinski
  • Corli Wigley-Coetsee
Regular Article



While patterns of variation in woody plant aboveground traits related to disturbance and resource availability in savanna ecosystems are fairly well understood, dimensions of variation in belowground traits remain poorly understood. We investigate how sapling coarse root (>2 mm diameter) traits and belowground storage organs vary with respect to differing disturbance regimes (i.e. fire or herbivore dominated) and soil fertility in Southern African savannas.


We examined how sapling rooting strategies (type of rooting system, storage organs, root allocation) as well as root total non-structural carbohydrate concentrations [TNC], root N and C:N of 69 common woody savanna and forest species at 16 sites vary with respect to differing disturbance regimes and soil fertility.


We found that root [TNC] and the occurrence of storage organs were highest while root N was lowest for species growing at fire-driven sites, compared to herbivore-driven sites and competition-controlled forest species. Allocation to belowground biomass was higher at fire-dominated sites but root volume:stem basal area did not differ between disturbance regimes. None of the measured traits were found to differ between nutrient rich clayey soils and nutrient poor sandy soils.


Our results suggest that disturbance related controls are important drivers of savanna belowground traits.


Allocation Rainfall Fire Herbivory Root functional traits Root total non-structural carbohydrates Soil fertility 



We are grateful to SANParks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority and several anonymous private landowners for their support. Lab analyses for this study were partially supported by the Institute of Dendrology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Kórnik, Poland. We also want to thank the reviewers for their thoughtful inputs and comments on an earlier draft.

Supplementary material

11104_2019_4145_MOESM1_ESM.docx (50 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 49 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Centre for Biological SciencesTata Institute of Fundamental Research, GKVKBangaloreIndia
  2. 2.School of Natural Resource ManagementNelson Mandela UniversityGeorgeSouth Africa
  3. 3.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA
  4. 4.Institute of DendrologyPolish Academy of SciencesKornikPoland
  5. 5.Scientific Services, Kruger National ParkSkukuzaSouth Africa

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