Is cattle grazing more important than landscape heterogeneity for grasshoppers in Afromontane grassland?

Joubert-Van Der Merwe, Lize ; Pryke, James S. (2018-06-12)

CITATION: Joubert-Van Der Merwe, L. & Pryke, J. S. 2018. Is cattle grazing more important than landscape heterogeneity for grasshoppers in Afromontane grassland?. Journal of Orthoptera Research, 27(1):13-21, doi:10.3897/jor.27.15027.

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Overgrazing is a major driver of habitat degradation, especially in southern Africa. Although grasshoppers are adapted to and benefit from natural disturbances, such as grazing by indigenous game and burning, we do not know how they respond to heavy cattle grazing, and how this response interacts with different fire regimes. We also do not know whether grasshoppers respond principally to these disturbances, to changes in the vegetation layer, or to larger landscape attributes (e.g. elevation). We addressed these questions in the topographically heterogeneous Central Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. We compared grasshopper assemblages among sites differing in grazing intensity (light, moderate and heavy), fire regime, rocky outcrops and vegetation structure, and attributes of landscape heterogeneity. The local environment (rocky outcrops, bare ground cover, grass height and total vegetation cover) was more important than landscape attributes for all measures of diversity. Grasshopper species richness was best explained by grazing intensity, with the specific response determined by fire regime. Greatest species richness was consistently recorded in heavily-grazed grassland. Thus, we found no evidence in support of the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis. Grasshopper assemblage composition of areas with light grazing was different from those with heavy grazing, but areas with light grazing were similar to those with moderate grazing under all fire regimes. Different suites of grasshopper species were adapted to changes in the local environment, with greatest diversity (Shannon H’) associated with elevated levels of bare ground and sparse vegetation cover. The greatest proportion of rare, endemic and sensitive grasshoppers (incl. Lentula minuta, Machaeridia conspersa and Qachasia fastigiata) was associated with a greater proportion of vegetation cover. The sensitivity of grasshopper assemblages to fire-grazing interactions, and the habitat requirements of different suites of species necessitates consideration of different types (fire and grazing) as well as levels of disturbances when adjusting management practices. We recommend that conservation of rare, endemic and sensitive grasshoppers should be prioritized, as these are most vulnerable to local extirpation.

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