The influence of rainfall seasonality and climate change on the demography of Aloe Dichotoma, a long-lived succulent tree from semi-arid southern Africa

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

In the arid and semi-arid western parts of southern Africa, Aloe dichotoma Masson, a long-lived succulent tree species, is thought to be responding to anthropogenic climate change. However, differences in response across its distribution are likely to be related to rainfall seasonality. This study investigated change in ten Aloe dichotoma populations within winter and summer rainfall zones in South Africa and southern Namibia. Using repeat photography over a timespan of approximately 30 years, demographic patterns, population dynamics (including mortality, recruitment and overall population change) and growth were assessed and modelled with climatic variables. Long-term patterns of recruitment and longevity were also investigated by using individual plant growth data to reconstruct recruitment histories for each population. Finally, the influences of climatic conditions on recruitment were evaluated by superimposing historical rainfall and temperature data. Differences in response between rainfall zones are clearly evident throughout. Generalised linear models revealed lower mortality, higher recruitment and positive population change at winter rainfall sites, while summer rainfall sites showed negative population change. Growth data revealed more rapid growth in height of juveniles than adults, and slower growth in height in the winter rainfall zone, most likely related to differences in tree architecture. It is evident that biotic and anthropogenic factors such as herbivory, nurse plants and theft are likely to moderate observable patterns as opposed to driving them. Recruitment modelling suggested that A. dichotoma attains a maximum age of 300 to 350 years, and revealed recent recruitment peaks in the winter rainfall zone and peaks around the turn of the 19th century in the summer rainfall zone. Changes in temperature and rainfall are likely to be the main drivers. Rising temperatures within the last century may have driven increased recruitment and low mortality in the cold-limited winter rainfall zone, while decreasing rainfall within the summer rainfall zone, combined with increasing temperatures, may explain this region's low recruitment and high mortality. The advancement of knowledge of broad spatial and temporal patterns in A. dichotoma and the likely causes, coupled with fine-scale future studies, will enable more detailed prediction of the species' response to future global change.

Includes bibliographical references.