Question: Is seedling recruitment of a fleshy-fruited tree in degraded Afromontane savanna dependent on the shelter provided by pioneer shrubs, and is shelter ability related to shrub traits?
Location: Degraded montane savanna in northern Ethiopia (13° 36’ N, 39° 21’ E).
Method: Nurse plants of Olea europaea ssp. cuspidata seedlings were recorded using T-square plotless sampling and clustered according to shrub traits, using Ward's method after Principal Components Analysis. Facilitation was further examined through experimental planting and Kaplan-Meier survival analysis.
Results: Both in grazed and protected areas, O. europaea recruits were found exclusively under shrubs, primarily under Euclea racemosa although Acacia etbaica was more abundant. Olea recruitment is distributed randomly at landscape scale, but depends on shelter at patch scale. Shelter ability is related to shrub shape and species identity. Dense multi-stemmed shrubs with a wide base and crown on a mulch-rich mound are key recruitment foci. Euclea shrubs have these favoured traits and probably act as preferential perching sites for avian seed dispersers. Soil and organic matter accumulation under Euclea shrubs may also create favourable conditions for Olea germination and survival. Experimentally planted seedlings had a better chance for survival under Euclea.
Conclusions: Olea regeneration is probably subject to both passive (disperser-mediated) and active facilitation. Small changes of shrub traits can alter the suitability of a patch for Olea recruitment. Protection of shrubs can increase facilitation for seedlings, while pruning may reduce competition for saplings and thus enhance forest succession. Planting of raised Olea seedlings under Euclea shrubs in years with a good rainy season may further assist forest restoration.