Savanna fire and the origins of the 'underground forests' of Africa

24 Aug 2015

1. The origin of fire-adapted lineages is a long-standing question in ecology. Although phylogeny can provide a significant contribution to the ongoing debate, its use has been precluded by the lack of comprehensive DNA data. Here we focus on the ‘underground trees’ (= geoxyles) of southern Africa, one of the most distinctive growth forms characteristic of fire-prone savannas. 2. We placed geoxyles within the most comprehensive dated phylogeny for the regional flora comprising over 1400 woody species. Using this phylogeny, we tested whether African geoxyles evolved concomitantly with those of the South American cerrado and used their phylogenetic position to date the appearance of humid savannas. 3. We found multiple independent origins of the geoxyle life-form mostly from the Pliocene, a period consistent with the origin of cerrado, with the majority of divergences occurring within the last 2 Ma. When contrasted with their tree relatives, geoxyles occur in regions characterized by higher rainfall and greater fire frequency. 4. Our results indicate that the geoxylic growth form may have evolved in response to the interactive effects of frequent fires and high precipitation. As such, geoxyles may be regarded as markers of fire-maintained savannas occurring in climates suitable for forests.