The role of fine‐root mass, specific root length and lifespan in tree performance: a whole‐tree exploration

Monique Weemstra*, Natasa Kiorapostolou, Jasper van Ruijven, Liesje Mommer, Jorad de Vries, Frank Sterck

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

51 Citations (Scopus)


The root economics spectrum (RES) hypothesis predicts that fast‐growing tree species have short‐lived roots with high specific root length (SRL) to allow rapid resource uptake, and opposite trait expressions for slow‐growing species. Yet, the mixed support for this hypothesis suggests that trees can adopt alternative strategies to increase resource uptake, besides an increase in SRL. We combined a novel mechanistic whole‐tree model and empirical fine‐root data of ten tree species to test the effects of one of these alternative strategies, notably increasing fine‐root mass, on the tree's net C gain (used here as a proxy for tree performance), and to assess how fine‐root lifespan influences the relative importance of SRL and fine‐root mass for the C balance of trees. Our results indicate that accounting for the short lifespan of high‐SRL roots has important implications for explaining tree performance and the role of roots herein. Without considering their faster turnover, high‐SRL roots and low fine‐root mass resulted in the highest performance as predicted from the RES. Yet, when their higher turnover rates were accounted for, a high fine‐root mass and low SRL lead to the highest performance. Both our model outcomes and field data further show a negative relationship between SRL and fine‐root mass through which species aim to realise a similar root length density. This trade‐off further indicates how high a SRL and low fine‐root mass as well as opposite trait values can both lead to a positive C balance in a similar environment. Our study may explain why high‐SRL roots do not necessarily lead to the fastest tree growth as often hypothesised and demonstrates the importance of fine‐root mass in combination with fine‐root lifespan for explaining interspecific differences in tree performance. More generally, our work demonstrates the value of identifying and investigating different belowground strategies across species from a whole‐plant modelling perspective, and identifies the relationship between SRL, fine‐root biomass and lifespan as an important functional dimension to variation in species’ performance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)575-585
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number3
Early online date5 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020


  • carbon balance
  • fine roots
  • functional traits
  • root economics spectrum
  • tree performance
  • whole-plant model


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