Grass-woodland transitions: Determinants and consequences for ecosystem functioning and provisioning of services

Osvaldo Sala, Fernando T. Maestre

Research output: Contribution to journalEditorialpeer-review

82 Scopus citations


1. A large fraction of grasslands world-wide is undergoing a rapid shift from herbaceous to woodyplantdominance, while in other parts of the world, the opposite transition from woodland to grasslandis the dominant phenomenon. These shifts have received increasing attention in the ecological literatureduring the last two decades due to their global extent and their impacts on ecosystem functioning.2. This Special Feature includes a series of contributions on key topics within the study of grass-woodland transitions, including three articles addressing the drivers of these vegetation shifts andanother three evaluating their ecological consequences. These articles, which include reviews, modellingand empirical studies, highlight the multiplicity of approaches and spatial scales being currentlyused when studying grass-woodland transitions.3. The first articles focus on the role of fire in driving the dynamics of mesic grasslands in theUSA, on the effects of climate change on the transition zones between treeless vegetation, savannaand forest in tropical and subtropical Americas and on the role of the internal structure of vegetationas a determinant of grassland-woodland transitions. The articles devoted to exploring the consequencesinclude a modelling study on the ecohydrological consequences of shrub removal in westernNorth America and an empirical study aiming at understanding how abiotic and biotic attributesinfluence above-ground net productivity across Patagonian grasslands and shrublands, as well as areview of the consequences of brush management on the provision of ecosystem services.4. Synthesis. Identifying the best actions to avoid or take advantage of grass-woodland transitionsrequires a mechanistic understanding of both the drivers of these shifts and their ecological consequences.The collection of reviews, empirical and modelling studies included in this Special Featurecontributes to forecasting how ongoing global change will affect grass-woodland transitions andtheir consequences for the provisioning of ecosystem services from drylands, which account for alarge fraction of Earth's surface.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1357-1362
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2014


  • climate change
  • ecosystem services
  • ecosystem-water dynamics
  • fire
  • grasslands
  • invasion ecology
  • primary production
  • shrublands
  • vegetation shifts
  • woody-plant encroachment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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