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Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (2017)

Tree toppling by elephants and its consequences in thicket mosaic vegetation of Addo Elephant National Park

Mgqatsa, Nokubonga

Titre : Tree toppling by elephants and its consequences in thicket mosaic vegetation of Addo Elephant National Park

Auteur : Mgqatsa, Nokubonga

Université de soutenance : Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Grade : Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) 2017

This study explored the extent of elephant tree toppling and possible cascading effects in Karoo Thicket Mosaic habitat in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. While the notion that elephants topple trees is well recognised, little is known about their indirect effects and the possible influence on several trophic levels. Changes brought about by elephants have the potential to influence microclimatic conditions, soil litter processes, plant community composition and other animals. Therefore, this study determined the impacts of elephants on tree toppling, and hence the production of coarse woody debris and the Coarse Woody Debris Profile. Additionally, I explored the consequences of elephant tree toppling on the plant community, small mammals and seed removal. Furthermore, I explored the potential factors facilitating the coexistence of woody plants and elephants. I compared coarse woody debris production and the Coarse Woody Debris Profile between sites with and without elephants. Further, I assessed the consequences of tree toppling in the elephant present site at a patch scale to explore the possible cascading effects of elephants. Firstly, I showed that elephants impacted woody plants through branch/stem breakages and toppling of trees, but that effects vary for different categories of the Coarse Woody Debris Profile. This result confirms the most recent findings that woody plants are at risk from elephant herbivory in Karoo Thicket Mosaic habitat. The elephant toppling effect on these landscapes is largely influenced by plant growth form, with woody trees suffering high levels of elephant toppling than shrubs of comparable size. However, toppled Pappea capensis is able to persist from being toppled by elephants, either through coppicing or resprouting. Additionally, I showed that toppled trees form discrete patches on the landscape, with altered microclimate and browsing pressures. While I detected no significant effect of these changes on plant composition and abundance within these patches, these findings indicate the possible influence of elephants on facilitating plant recruitment and altering plant communities of thicket through toppling of trees. Moreover, I showed that elephant toppling of trees provide habitat patches for small mammals, thus affecting seed removal by vertebrates within patches. These changes had no discernable effect on soil seed banks. However, they highlight the need to better understand the temporal dynamics of these patches and implications for seed dynamics and plant communities on the landscape. The results show the patterns of elephant impacts on woody plants and possible cascading effects in the presence of elephants. Therefore, the study advances our understanding of top-down effects of elephants and shows the relevance of understanding these effects in order to effectively manage elephant impacts in different systems.

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