Spatial heterogeneity in nitrification and soil exploration by trees favour source–sink dynamics in a humid savanna: A modelling approach

Sarah Konaré, Simon Boudsocq, Jacques Gignoux, Jean Christophe Lata, Xavier Raynaud, Sébastien Barot

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Savannas are structured ecosystems characterized by a grass layer interspersed with trees. Trees strongly modify their local environment and favour nutrient accumulation under their canopies. Tree roots can also forage horizontally far beyond the canopy projection to increase nutrient uptake. In the Lamto savanna (Côte d’Ivoire), grasses are able to inhibit nitrification while trees stimulate it. Here, we used a two-patch model simulating nitrogen (N) dynamics in a humid savanna between an open patch (without tree) associated with a low nitrification rate and a patch of tree clump associated with a high nitrification rate. The model also includes horizontal N fluxes between these two patches corresponding to horizontal soil exploration by tree roots. We analysed the impact of spatial heterogeneity in nitrification and soil horizontal exploration on N budget and plant biomass. Despite high N losses under trees due to nitrification stimulation by trees, our results show that the ability of trees to explore horizontally the open allows them to uptake more nutrients in total. This leads to an asymmetric N flux from the open to tree clumps, which contributes to nutrient enrichment under tree clumps and thereby to tree growth. Although trees have the ability to horizontally explore the soil to accumulate nutrients under their canopy, increasing the surface occupied by tree clumps increases N losses per hectare of savanna due to the increased nitrification under trees and the subsequent increase in (Formula presented.) leaching. While perennial savanna grasses show a restricted horizontal soil exploration to control nutrient availability, our results predict that the extension of tree roots outside their canopy increases their nutrient acquisition in the Lamto savanna. This study is the first one emphasizing the influence of horizontal exploration of trees and tree cover on savanna N budget and functioning. Overall, the proportion of tree cover and horizontal soil exploration are important factors to consider in savannas characterized by spatial heterogeneity in N cycling created by trees and grasses. These factors appear critical to the functioning of West African humid savannas and should be investigated in other savanna types. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

    Original languageEnglish
    JournalFunctional Ecology
    Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021


    • grasses
    • horizontal soil exploration
    • nitrification control
    • nitrogen cycling
    • preference for NH versus NO
    • savanna
    • trees

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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