Forest encroachment into savanna is occurring at an unprecedented rate across tropical Africa, leading to a loss of valuable savanna habitat. One of the first stages of forest encroachment is the establishment of tree seedlings at the forest–savanna transition. This study examines the demographic bottleneck in the seedlings of five species of tropical forest pioneer trees in a forest–savanna transition zone in West Africa. Five species of tropical pioneer forest tree seedlings were planted in savanna, mixed/transition, and forest vegetation types and grown for 12 months, during which time fire occurred in the area. We examined seedling survival rates, height, and stem diameter before and after fire; and seedling biomass and starch allocation patterns after fire. Seedling survival rates were significantly affected by fire, drought, and vegetation type. Seedlings that preferentially allocated more resources to increasing root and leaf starch (starch storage helps recovery from fire) survived better in savanna environments (frequently burnt), while seedlings that allocated more resources to growth and resource-capture traits (height, the number of leaves, stem diameter, specific leaf area, specific root length, rootto-shoot ratio) survived better in mixed/transition and forest environments. Larger (taller with a greater stem diameter) seedlings survived burning better than smaller seedlings. However, larger seedlings survived better than smaller ones even in the absence of fire. Bombax buonopozense was the forest species that survived best in the savanna environment, likely as a result of increased access to light allowing greater investment in belowground starch storage capacity and therefore a greater ability to cope with fire. Synthesis: Forest pioneer tree species survived best through fire and drought in the savanna compared to the other two vegetation types. This was likely a result of the open-canopied savanna providing greater access to light, thereby releasing seedlings from light limitation and enabling them to make and store more starch. Fire can be used as a management tool for controlling forest encroachment into savanna as it significantly affects seedling survival. However, if rainfall increases as a result of global change factors, encroachment may be more difficult to control as seedling survival ostensibly increases when the pressure of drought is lifted. We propose B. buonopozense as an indicator species for forest encroachment into savanna in West African forest–savanna transitions.
Number: ‘Marie Curie FP7-PEOPLE-2012-IEF-327990-TipTropTran)’, British Ecological Society (Grant/Award Number: ‘4359/5331’).