Research for the Environment

Press release from September 23, 2008

Fires regenerate African grassland

Are fires more important than rain for the savannah ecosystem?

Leipzig. Natural grass fires are evidently more important for the ecology of savannahs than has previously been assumed. This is the finding of a study carried out in Etosha National Park in the north of Namibia. It is the first study to have investigated the complex interplay of the factors fire, competition, moisture and seed availability in relation to a grass species. Periodic fires in semi-arid regions can lead to older tufts of grass disappearing, thereby making room for younger grasses. Writing in the Journal of Ecology, the researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), the University of Frankfurt am Main and the University of Cologne say that fire therefore plays an important role in regeneration. The findings are particularly significant for the management of semi-arid nature reserves, in which, in the absence of natural plant eaters, fires are the only practical means of renewing the grass canopy.

Etosha National Park in the north of Namibia

Etosha National Park in the north of Namibia is the second largest nature reserve in Africa, measuring 20,000 square kilometres.
Photo: Julia Zimmermann/UFZ

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Die 500 mal 500 Meter große Versuchsfläche im Etosha-Nationalpark

The researchers selected an area measuring 500 by 500 metres in Etosha National Park because it has one dominant grass species and because it was possible to rule out interference such as grazing and other human influences.
Photo: Julia Zimmermann/UFZ

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For the study, the researchers selected an area measuring 500 by 500 metres in Etosha National Park because it has one dominant grass species and because it was possible to rule out interference such as grazing and other human influences. Etosha National Park in the north of Namibia is the second largest nature reserve in Africa, measuring 20,000 square kilometres. It is about the size of Hesse. The temperatures in the semi-arid savannah fluctuate between 6 degrees centigrade in the winter and 35 degrees in the summer. The area under investigation is one of the driest areas in which plants can still grow, with annual rainfall of just 380 mm. That is less than the rainfall in the rain shadow of the Harz mountains.

Stipagrostis uniplumis is the dominant grass species and lives for several years. The researchers observed the growth of these grasses at weekly intervals for one season and measured the most important climate parameters. They also experimented on small areas by sowing additional seeds, carrying out controlled reconstructions of fires, planting competing grass species and using artificial irrigation. They found that the dead grass layer significantly hindered the recruitment of young plants. Fire can break up the old grass layer, thereby creating opportunities for regrowth. By contrast, artificial irrigation and the addition of seeds did not result in higher recruitment of seedlings.

The largest ever conference of ecologists from all over Europe was taking place in Leipzig from 15 to 19 September 2008. Over 1000 participants from more than 30 countries have registered for EURECO-GFOE 2008. The conference is a joint meeting of the European Ecological Federation (EEF) and the Gesellschaft für Ökologie (GfÖ) and is being organised at the Congress Center Leipzig by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the Universities of Halle-Wittenberg and Leipzig. The EEF is the umbrella organisation of the national ecological associations in Europe. Over 8000 ecologists belong to its member associations. The GfÖ is the ecological society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Tilo Arnhold

More information:

PD Dr. Volker Grimm
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Phone +49 341 235-1711
PD Dr. Volker Grimm

or

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Press office
Tilo Arnhold
Phone +49 341 235 1269
presse@ufz.de

Publication

Julia Zimmermann, Steven I. Higgins, Volker Grimm, John Hoffmann, Tamara Münkemüller and Anja Linstädter:
Recruitment filters in a perennial grassland: the interactive roles of fire, competitors, moisture and seed availability. Journal of Ecology 2008, 96 , 1033–1044. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2008.01409.x

Links:

Fire, resprouting and variability:
www.ufz.de/index.php?en=2027

Etosha National Park:
www.etosha.de

You can read more about biological invasions and other issues concerning biodiversity in a special edition of the UFZ newsletter for the 9th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP9), that was from 19 to 30 May in Bonn.
www.ufz.de/index.php?en=10690

At the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) scientists research the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. They study water resources, biological diversity, the consequences of climate change and adaptation possibilities, environmental and biotechnologies, bio energy, the behaviour of chemicals in the environment and their effect on health, as well as modelling and social science issues. Their guiding research principle is supporting the sustainable use of natural resources and helping to secure these basic requirements of life over the long term under the influence of global change. The UFZ employs 900 people at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the German government and by the states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.
The Helmholtz Association helps solve major, pressing challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research areas: Energy, Earth and Environment, Health, Key Technologies, Structure of Matter, Transport and Space. With 25,700 employees in 15 research centres and an annual budget of around EUR 2.3 billion, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation. Its work follows in the tradition of the great natural scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894).

Contact

Public relations

Office
Tel +49 341 235 1269
info@ufz.de

Press / Print

Susanne Hufe (Head)
Tel +49 341 235 1630

Tilo Arnhold (Mo-We)
Tel +49 341 235 1635

presse@ufz.de