Early root overproduction not triggered by nutrients decisive for competitive success belowground

F.M. Padilla, L. Mommer, H. de Caluwe, A.E. Smit-Tiekstra, C.A.M. Wagemaker, N.J. Ouborg, H. de Kroon

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38 Citations (Scopus)


Background - Theory predicts that plant species win competition for a shared resource by more quickly preempting the resource in hotspots and by depleting resource levels to lower concentrations than its competitors. Competition in natural grasslands largely occurs belowground, but information regarding root interactions is limited, as molecular methods quantifying species abundance belowground have only recently become available. Principal Findings - In monoculture, the grass Festuca rubra had higher root densities and a faster rate of soil nitrate depletion than Plantago lanceolata, projecting the first as a better competitor for nutrients. However, Festuca lost in competition with Plantago. Plantago not only replaced the lower root mass of its competitor, but strongly overproduced roots: with only half of the plants in mixture than in monoculture, Plantago root densities in mixture were similar or higher than those in its monocultures. These responses occurred equally in a nutrient-rich and nutrient-poor soil layer, and commenced immediately at the start of the experiment when root densities were still low and soil nutrient concentrations high. Conclusions/Significance - Our results suggest that species may achieve competitive superiority for nutrients by root growth stimulation prior to nutrient depletion, induced by the presence of a competitor species, rather than by a better ability to compete for nutrients per se. The root overproduction by which interspecific neighbors are suppressed independent of nutrient acquisition is consistent with predictions from game theory. Our results emphasize that root competition may be driven by other mechanisms than is currently assumed. The long-term consequences of these mechanisms for community dynamics are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere55805
Number of pages9
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • interspecific competition
  • plant diversity
  • niche differentiation
  • negative feedback
  • species-diversity
  • seed yield
  • productivity
  • communities
  • maintenance
  • mechanisms

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    Padilla, F. M., Mommer, L., de Caluwe, H., Smit-Tiekstra, A. E., Wagemaker, C. A. M., Ouborg, N. J., & de Kroon, H. (2013). Early root overproduction not triggered by nutrients decisive for competitive success belowground. PLoS ONE, 8(1), [e55805]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055805