1.Advances in root ecology have revealed that root standing biomass is higher in species-rich plant communities than in species-poor communities. Currently, we do not know whether this below-ground diversity effect is the result of enhanced root production or reduced root mortality or both, which is essential information to understand ecosystem functioning, as it determines C sequestration and N dynamics in soil.
2.Minirhizotron observations were combined with root coring in five different plant communities (four monocultures and the respective mixture). Molecular markers were used to quantitatively determine species abundance in mixed root biomass samples in order to track shifts in below-ground species composition. In addition, a litterbag experiment was performed to study root decomposition independent of root mortality.
3.Root length production was greater and root length loss was lower in the mixture than expected from monocultures in all years. Simulations suggest that at least two species must have had reduced losses in mixture compared to monoculture. However, the diversity effects on root mortality may partially be explained by selection effects as the species with the longest root life span became dominant in the mixtures. Root length loss from minirhizotrons was very low; the combination of minirhizotron length measurements with root biomass estimates from coring suggested underestimation of root loss in minirhizotrons over time. Root decomposition was not affected by diversity.
4.Diversity enhanced root length production and decreased root loss, resulting in below-ground overyielding. With decomposition unaffected, our results suggest that root mortality is reduced with increasing diversity. Future studies have to reveal the generality of our observations in larger scale biodiversity experiments by using species having a wider variety of root traits.