Journal of Tropical Ecology

Ecosystem structure in the Brazilian Cerrado: a vegetation gradient of aboveground biomass, root mass and consumption by fire

a1 Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331 USA


Conversion to permanent agriculture is rapidly occurring over vast areas of the 1.8 million km2; Brazilian Cerrado; a region that is naturally a mosaic of grasslands, savannas and evergreen tropical woodlands. Yet, few studies have quantified total biomass of plant communities in this ecosystem, particularly the belowground component; a C pool of potential global significance. Total biomass (aboveground and belowground), and the quantity of biomass consumed by fires were measured in four plant communities comprising a vegetation gradient from pure grassland (campo limpo) to a woodland with a closed canopy of tall shrubs and scattered trees (cerrado denso) near Brasilia, DF, Brazil. Total aboveground biomass (TAGB) increased along this gradient from 5.5 Mg ha-1 in campo limpo to 29.4 Mg ha-1 in cerrado denso. Vegetation structure varied among communities; trees were nonexistent in campo limpo, but were at a density of 1000 ha-1 and a biomass of 12.9 Mg ha-1 in cerrado denso. Fires consumed 92 and 84% of the TAGB in campo limpo (pure grassland) and campo sujo (savanna), respectively. In cerrado aberto and cerrado denso, trees and tall shrubs were little affected by fire. Combustion factors of the TAGB in these communities was 54 and 33%, respectively. The total biomass consumed by fire ranged from 5.0 Mg ha-1 in campo limpo to 13.5 Mg ha-1 in cerrado aberto. Compared to other widespread Brazilian ecosystems (tropical dry forest and evergreen forest), the Cerrado has a lower aboveground biomass. The TAGB of cerrado denso is > 9% of that of Amazonian tropical evergreen forest. The total quantity of biomass consumed by fire, and hence emissions to the atmosphere is lower in intact Cerrado communities compared to fires in slashed tropical forest.

(Accepted November 24 1997)

Key Words: aboveground biomass; Brazil; belowground biomass; Cerrado; fire ecology; fuels; root mass; tropical savanna.