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Facilitation by isolated trees triggers woody encroachment and a biome shift at the savanna-forest transition


Abreu, Rodolfo et al. (2021), Facilitation by isolated trees triggers woody encroachment and a biome shift at the savanna-forest transition, Dryad, Dataset,


1. Woody encroachment into grassy biomes is a global phenomenon, often resulting in a nearly complete turnover of species, with savanna specialists being replaced by forest-adapted species. Understanding the mechanisms involved in this change is important for devising strategies for managing savannas.

2. We examined how isolated trees favor woody encroachment and species turnover by overcoming dispersal limitation and environmental filtering. In a savanna released from fire in southeastern Brazil (Cerrado) we sampled woody plants establishing under 40 tree canopies and in paired treeless plots. These trees comprised eight species selected for habitat preference (savanna or forest) and dispersal syndrome (bird-dispersed or not). We recorded dimensions of each tree, dispersal syndrome and habitat preference of recruits, and quantified the physical environment within each plot, aiming at a mechanistic understanding of woody encroachment.

3. We found clear evidence that isolated trees cause nucleation and drive changes in functional composition of savanna. Effectiveness as nucleator differed among species, but was unrelated to their functional guilds (habitat preference or dispersal syndrome). Density of saplings in nuclei was partially explained by soil moisture (+), daily temperature amplitude (-), and sum of bases (-).

4. Our results indicate that isolated trees act first as perches, strongly favoring bird-dispersed species. They then act as nurse trees, considerably changing the environment in favor of forest-adapted recruits. In the long term, as the nuclei expand and merge, savanna specialists tend to disappear and the savanna turns into a low-diversity forest.

5. Synthesis and applications: Fire suppression has allowed the nucleation process and consequently the woody encroachment and fast replacement of savanna specialists by forest species in the Cerrado. By elucidating the mechanisms behind woody encroachment, we recommend using prescribed fires to burn forest seedlings and to reduce tree canopy size wherever the management goal is to maintain the typical savanna structure and composition.


Please see Methods in the article published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.