Savanna ecosystems are defined as having discontinuous tree cover with an almost continuous grass layer. In Africa, these ecosystems cover 40% of the land surface (20% globally) and are home to the majority of the human population (approximately 20% of the global population). Despite the global importance of savannas, the ecological mechanisms that determine the ratio of trees to grass in these habitats are still unresolved. In fact, ecologists do not have a good understanding why savannas exist in the first place. On the other hand, savannas are increasingly threatened by human land-use, especially agricultural conversion. Savannas may also be at risk by the future impacts of climate change, particularly shifting precipitation patterns. Therefore, developing effective biophysical models of savanna dynamics is imperative for their conservation and management, as well as for developing adaptation strategies for the human populations that depend on them.
In April, the BES group of CEES sponsored a two-day workshop to bring together a working group focused on developing a better understanding of African savanna dynamics, as well as the potential changes that savannas might experience under future climate change scenarios. The workshop brought together researchers with long-term projects at sites across the African continent, including Kruger National Park in South Africa, Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and the Sahel in Mali. Additionally, the participants brought a variety of skillsets that will facilitate the exploration of ecological processes across a range of spatial scales, from field plots (< 1 ha) to landscapes (tens of kilometers) to continental scales. One goal of the workshop was to initiate a multi-institution proposal that addresses the organizing principles of African tree-grass communities, to be submitted to the National Science Foundation. A longer-term goal of the workshop was to develop and maintain a forum for exchanging ideas and generating collaborative projects that transcend single research sites to allow exploration of processes that span the African continent.
Participants of the workshop included faculty from Wake Forest: Michael Anderson, Bill Smith, Miles Silman, and Becky Powell (CEES Fellow), as well as the following visiting faculty: Ana Barros (Duke University), Niall Hanan (South Dakota State University), Ricardo Holdo (university of Missouri), Jesse Nippert (Kansas State University), and Chris Still (University of California, Santa Barbara). Wake Forest graduate students with on-going savanna ecology research, Kathleen Quigley and Dan Griffith, also participated.