Disturbance may be an important determinant of plant community composition and diversity owing to its effects on competitive interactions, resources, dominance and vigour. The effect of type, timing and frequency of disturbance on grass and forb species richness was examined using data from a long-term (> 50 yr) grassland burning and mowing experiment in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Grass species richness declined considerably (> 50%) in the absence of disturbance, whereas forb species richness was unaffected. Annual burning in sites not mown in summer tended to increase grass species richness relative to triennial burning (22% increase) with the reverse being true in sites mown twice in summer (37% decline). Forb species richness declined by 25% in sites mown twice in summer relative to sites mown in early summer only. Disturbance was necessary to achieve maximum grass species richness presumably by removing litter and increasing the availability of light. The interaction of time of mowing in summer (early versus late) and time of burning during the dormant period (spring versus winter) had the most dramatic effect on species richness. Time of burning had no effect on richness in sites mown in early summer, but winter burning resulted in a dramatic decline (27–42%) in richness in sites mown in late summer. This effect may be related to possible greater soil desiccation with this combination of disturbances.
Nomenclature: Arnold & De Wet (1993).
Abbreviation: AGP = Above-ground phytomass production.