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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Modelling the impact of climate change on woody plant population dynamics in South African savanna

Jörg Tews1* and Florian Jeltsch2

Author Affiliations

1 Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation, Institute of Biochemistry and Biology, University of Potsdam, Maulbeerallee 2, D-14467 Potsdam, Germany

2 Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation, Institute of Biochemistry and Biology, University of Potsdam, Maulbeerallee 2, D-14467 Potsdam, Germany

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BMC Ecology 2004, 4:17  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-4-17

Published: 17 December 2004



In Southern Africa savannas climate change has been proposed to alter rainfall, the most important environmental driver for woody plants. Woody plants are a major component of savanna vegetation determining rangeland condition and biodiversity. In this study we use a spatially explicit, stochastic computer model to assess the impact of climate change on the population dynamics of Grewia flava, a common, fleshy-fruited shrub species in the southern Kalahari. Understanding the population dynamics of Grewia flava is a crucial task, because it is widely involved in the shrub/bush encroachment process, a major concern for rangeland management due to its adverse effect on livestock carrying capacity and biodiversity.


For our study we consider four climate change scenarios that have been proposed for the southern Kalahari for the coming decades: (1) an increase in annual precipitation by 30–40%, (2) a decrease by 5–15%, (3) an increase in variation of extreme rainfall years by 10–20%, (4) and increase in temporal auto-correlation, i.e. increasing length and variation of periodic rainfall oscillations related to El Niño/La Niña phenomena. We evaluate the slope z of the time-shrub density relationship to quantify the population trend. For each climate change scenario we then compared the departure of z from typical stable population dynamics under current climatic conditions. Based on the simulation experiments we observed a positive population trend for scenario (1) and a negative trend for scenario (2). In terms of the projected rates of precipitation change for scenario (3) and (4) population dynamics were found to be relatively stable. However, for a larger increase in inter-annual variation or in temporal auto-correlation of rainfall population trends were negative, because favorable rainfall years had a limited positive impact due to the limited shrub carrying capacity.


We conclude that a possible increase in precipitation will strongly facilitate shrub encroachment threatening savanna rangeland conditions and regional biodiversity. Furthermore, the negative effects found for positive auto-correlated rainfall support current ecological theory stating that periodically fluctuating environments can reduce population viability because species suffer disproportionately from poor environmental conditions.