Spatial mapping of root systems reveals diverse strategies of soil exploration and resource contest in grassland plants

Anu Lepik, Maria Abakumova, john davison, Kristjan Zobel, Marina Semchenko

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When foraging and competing for below-ground resources, plants have to coordinate the behaviour of thousands of root tips in a manner similar to that of eusocial animal colonies. While well described in animals, we know little about the spatial behaviour of plants, particularly at the level of individual roots. Here, we employed statistical methods previously used to describe animal ranging behaviour to examine root system overlap and the efficiency of root positioning in eight grassland species grown in monocultures and mixtures along a gradient of neighbour densities. Species varied widely in their ability to distribute roots efficiently, with the majority of species showing significant root aggregation at very fine spatial scales. Extensive root system overlap was observed in species mixtures, indicating a lack of territoriality at the level of whole root systems. However, with increasing density of competitors, several species withdrew roots from the periphery of foraging ranges and increased intraplant root aggregation in the remaining area, which may indicate consolidation of foraging areas under competitive pressure. Several species exhibited responses consistent with resource contest in species mixtures where encounters with competitors’ roots triggered increased root aggregation at the expense of foraging efficiency. Such responses only occurred in mixtures of species with comparable competitive abilities but were absent in asymmetric species combinations. Synthesis. Combining fine-scale measurement of plant root distributions with spatial statistics yields new insights into plant behavioural strategies with significant potential to impact resource foraging efficiency and productivity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)652-663
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 27 Oct 2020


  • below-ground interactions
  • competition
  • foraging efficiency
  • functional traits
  • ideal free distribution
  • plant behaviour
  • plant–plant interactions
  • root spatial distribution


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