Continental-scale variability in browser diversity is a major driver of diversity patterns in acacias across Africa
diversity patterns, herbivory, plant–herbivore interactions, Quaternary climate change, resource–consumer relationships, savanna species, speciation
1. It has been proposed that, across broad spatial scales, climatic factors are the main drivers of ecological patterns, while biotic factors are mainly important at local spatial scales. However, few tests of the effect of biotic interactions on broad-scale patterns have been conducted; conclusions about the scale-dependence of the importance of biotic interactions thus seem premature. 2. We developed an extensive database of locality records of one of Africa’s most conspicuous groups, the acacias (the genera Senegalia and Vachellia), and used species distribution models (SDMs) to estimate the distribution of all African acacias. 3. African acacias are particularly well adapted against mammalian herbivory; therefore, we hypothesized that browser diversity could be an important driver of acacia richness. Species richness maps for the two genera were created from SDM-generated maps. Ordinary least square (OLS) regressions and, to consider spatial autocorrelation, simultaneous autoregressive (SAR) analyses were used to model richness of the two genera in relation to mammalian browser richness, current environment (including climate), and climate history since the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). We used variation partitioning to determine what percentage of variation could be explained by these three groups of factors. 4. Both genera showed centres of richness in East Africa and the Limpopo Basin of southern Africa. Browser richness was the best explanatory variable for richness of both genera. Environmental factors explained negligible variation in the richness of Senegalia, but some variation in Vachellia. For both genera, the residuals of the species richness model of one genus also explained much variation in the richness of the other genus, indicating that common factors not considered in the richness analyses here may additionally be driving the richness of both genera. 5. Mechanisms that could generate a correlation between browser and acacia richness are proposed, and differences in the determinants of richness patterns of Senegalia and Vachellia discussed in the light of the two genera’s history of colonization of Africa. 6. Synthesis. This is the first study that demonstrates that consumer diversity can influence richness patterns at continental scales and demonstrates that biotic factors can drive richness even at broad spatial scales.