Different sets of belowground traits predict the ability of plant species to suppress and tolerate their competitors

Marina Semchenko, Anu Lepik, Maria Abakumova, Kristjan Zobel

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Background and aims: Functional traits may underlie differences in niches, which promote plant species co-existence, but also differences in competitive ability, which drive competitive exclusion. Empirical evidence concerning the contribution of different traits to niche differentiation and the ability to supress and tolerate competitors is very limited, particularly when considering belowground interactions.
    Methods: We grew 26 temperate grassland species along a density gradient of interspecific competitors to determine which belowground traits a) explain species’ ability to suppress and tolerate neighbours and b) contribute to niche differentiation, such that species with dissimilar trait values experience reduced competition.
    Results: We found that having larger root systems with extensive horizontal spread and lower root tissue density enabled efficient suppression of neighbours but did not significantly contribute to the ability to tolerate competition. Species with deeper root systems, lower specific root length and less branched roots were better at tolerating competition, but these traits did not significantly
    affect the ability to suppress neighbours. None of the measured traits contributed significantly to niche differentiation, either individually or in combination.
    Conclusions: This study provides little support for belowground traits contributing to species coexistence through niche differentiation. Instead, different sets of weakly correlated traits enable plants to either suppress or tolerate their competitors.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages13
    JournalPlant and Soil
    Early online date16 Jun 2017
    Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2017


    • belowground interactions
    • species coexistence
    • competitive ability
    • Functional traits
    • niche differentiation
    • Phenotypic plasticity
    • rooting depth
    • Stress tolerance


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