Fire and grazing determined grasslands of central Madagascar represent ancient assemblages
Solofondranohatra, Cédrique L.
Vorontsova, Maria S.
Hempson, Gareth P.
Lehmann, Caroline E. R.
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The ecology of Madagascar's grasslands is under-investigated and the dearth of ecological understanding of how disturbance by fire and grazing shapes these grasslands stems from a perception that disturbance shaped Malagasy grasslands only after human arrival. However, worldwide, fire and grazing shape tropical grasslands over ecological and evolutionary timescales, and it is curious Madagascar should be a global anomaly. We examined the functional and community ecology of Madagascar's grasslands across 71 communities in the Central Highlands. Combining multivariate abundance models of community composition and clustering of grass functional traits, we identified distinct grass assemblages each shaped by fire or grazing. The fire-maintained assemblage is primarily composed of tall caespitose species with narrow leaves and low bulk density. By contrast, the grazer-maintained assemblage is characterized by mat-forming, high bulk density grasses with wide leaves. Within each assemblage, levels of endemism, diversity and grass ages support these as ancient assemblages. Grazer-dependent grasses can only have co-evolved with a now-extinct megafauna. Ironically, the human introduction of cattle probably introduced a megafaunal substitute facilitating modern day persistence of a grazer-maintained grass assemblage in an otherwise defaunated landscape, where these landscapes now support the livelihoods of millions of people.