Grass feedbacks on fire stabilize savannas

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Savannas commonly consist of a discontinuous cover of overstory trees and a groundcover of grasses. Savanna models have previously demonstrated that vegetation feedbacks on fire frequency can limit the density of overstory trees, thereby maintaining savannas. Positive feedbacks of either savanna trees alone or trees and grasses together on fire frequency have been shown to result in a stable savanna equilibrium. Grass feedbacks on fire frequency, in contrast, have resulted in stable equilibria in either a grassland or forest state, but not in a savanna. These results, however, were derived from a system of differential equations that assumes that fire occurrence is strictly deterministic and that vegetation losses due to fire are continuous in time. We develop an alternative formulation of the grass-fire feedback model that assumes that fires are discrete and occur stochastically in time to examine the influence of these assumptions on the predicted state of the system. We show that incorporating fire as a discrete event can produce a recurring temporal refuge in which both grass and trees co-occur in a stable, bounded savanna. In our model, tree abundance is limited without invoking demographic bottlenecks in the transition from fire-sensitive to fire-resistant life history stages. An increasing strength of grass feedback on fire results in regular, predictable fires, which suggests that the system can also be modeled using a set of difference equations. We implement this discrete system using modified Leslie/Gower difference equations and demonstrate the existence of a bounded savanna state in this model framework. Our results confirm the potential for grass feedbacks to result in stable savannas, and indicate the importance of modeling fire as a discrete event rather than as a loss rate that is continuous in time. © 2011 Elsevier B.V.

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Ecological Modelling

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