Inger de Jonge
My research seeks to understand the impact of global change on the functioning and stability of African savanna ecosystems. Human population growth is driving land-use change across the African continent as people need increasing amounts of natural resources to sustain their livelihood. Moreover, human population rise is closely related to carbon emissions and therefore one of the lead causes of climate change. These drivers of global change are leading to strong alterations in ecological processes, such as fire and herbivory, with implications for savanna ecosystem functioning.
In my current work, I focus on the role of fungus-growing termites and large mammalian herbivores in nutrient cycling and savanna carbon dynamics. Models of carbon dynamics generally assume that carbon from plant material is returned into its inorganic forms by either free-living microbes or fire, two pathways that are highly sensitive to global environmental change. In savannas, however, a large fraction of plant material is broken down by large grazers such as zebra and wildebeest and inside ‘fungal gardens’ in termite mounds. I aim to determine the importance of these animal-mediated decomposition pathways for carbon cycling and storage in African savannas.