Floristic evidence for alternative biome states in tropical Africa

Related GLP Member: Casey Ryan, Kyle Dexter


We develop a biogeographic approach to analyzing the presence of alternative stable states in tropical biomes. Whilst forest–savanna bistability has been widely hypothesized and modeled, empirical evidence has remained scarce and controversial, and here, applying our method to Africa, we provide large-scale evidence that there are alternative states in tree species composition of tropical vegetation. Furthermore, our results have produced more accurate maps of the forest and savanna distributions in Africa, which take into account differences in tree species composition, and a complex suite of determinants. This result is not only important for understanding the biogeography of the continent but also, to guide large-scaled tree planting and restoration efforts planned for the region.


The idea that tropical forest and savanna are alternative states is crucial to how we manage these biomes and predict their future under global change. Large-scale empirical evidence for alternative stable states is limited, however, and comes mostly from the multimodal distribution of structural aspects of vegetation. These approaches have been criticized, as structure alone cannot separate out wetter savannas from drier forests for example, and there are also technical challenges to mapping vegetation structure in unbiased ways. Here, we develop an alternative approach to delimit the climatic envelope of the two biomes in Africa using tree species lists gathered for a large number of forest and savanna sites distributed across the continent. Our analyses confirm extensive climatic overlap of forest and savanna, supporting the alternative stable states hypothesis for Africa, and this result is corroborated by paleoecological evidence. Further, we find the two biomes to have highly divergent tree species compositions and to represent alternative compositional states. This allowed us to classify tree species as forest vs. savanna specialists, with some generalist species that span both biomes. In conjunction with georeferenced herbarium records, we mapped the forest and savanna distributions across Africa and quantified their environmental limits, which are primarily related to precipitation and seasonality, with a secondary contribution of fire. These results are important for the ongoing efforts to restore African ecosystems, which depend on accurate biome maps to set appropriate targets for the restored states but also provide empirical evidence for broad-scale bistability.

This paper comes from the SEOSAW project, a GLP Contributing Project.

In addition to the journal article, a piece in ScienceDaily links the research to other debates in the GLP community:

The state of mature ecosystems must be taken into account before launching massive reforestation plans in sub-Saharan Africa, according to geo-ecologist Julie Aleman, a visiting researcher in the geography department of Université de Montréal.

"The biomes of the region we studied, which includes all the countries south of the Sahara, are divided into two fairly distinct types: savannah at about 70 per cent and tropical forest for the rest," said Aleman, co-author of a major new study on African biomes.

Involving some 30 researchers, several from Africa itself, the study is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Read the full ScienceDaily article