Biomass partitioning and root morphology of savanna trees across a water gradient

K.W. Tomlinson, F.J. Sterck, F. Bongers, D.A. da Silva, E.R. Barbosa, D. Ward, F.T. Bakker, M.P.W. van Kaauwen, H.H.T. Prins, S. de Bie, F. van Langevelde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

79 Citations (Scopus)


1. Plant organ biomass partitioning has been hypothesized to be driven by resources, such that species from drier environments allocate more biomass to roots than species from wetter environments to access water at greater soil depths. In savanna systems, fire may select for greater allocation to root biomass, especially in humid environments where fire is more frequent. Therefore, species from drier environments may have been under selection pressure to reach deeper soil water more effectively than species from humid environments, through faster root extension, more efficient depth penetration, and faster plant growth rates to respond rapidly to variable rainfall events. 2. We compared biomass partitioning, root morphology traits [root extension rate, RER; specific taproot length (STRL)] and relative growth rate (RGR) of seedlings of 51 savanna tree species, sampled from three continents (Africa, Australia and South America) in a greenhouse experiment. We used phylogenetically corrected and uncorrected analyses to compare the traits of the groups. We conducted a permanova on the combined traits to establish whether species could be distinguished on the basis of their combined traits. 3. On average, species from humid environments allocated more biomass to roots and less to stems than species from semi-arid environments, consistent with the expectation that fire pressure selects for greater allocation to roots in humid environments. However, some species from humid environments had fast growth rates instead of high allocation to roots. Both RER and STRL were greater among species of semi-arid environments than among species of humid environments, and also differed between continents. Differences between strategies under each climate type appear to be associated with leaf habit. 4. Synthesis. Plant biomass partitioning has been selected by defoliation pressure and the effects of this selection pressure can supersede any selection in response to local water constraints. Root morphological adaptations, but not plant growth rate, of tree seedlings, have been selected in response to water deficits
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1113-1121
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • phylogenetically independent contrasts
  • global allocation rules
  • fire
  • plants
  • rainfall
  • patterns
  • traits
  • brazil
  • world
  • variability


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