To compete or not to compete: an experimental study of interactions between plant species with contrasting root behaviour

Marina Semchenko, Kristjan Zobel, Michael J Hutchings

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    Game-theoretic models predict that plants with root systems that avoid belowground competition will be displaced by plants that overproduce roots in substrate shared with competitors. Despite this, both types of root response to neighbours have been documented. We used two co-occurring clonal species (Glechoma hederacea and Fragaria vesca) with contrasting root responses to neighbours (avoidance of competition and contesting of resources, respectively) to examine whether functional variation in other traits affected the success of each rooting strategy, leading to a different outcome from that predicted on the basis of root behaviour alone. Vegetative propagation rates, morphology and biomass allocation patterns were examined when each species was challenged with competition from physically separate ramets with either the same rooting strategy (intraclonal competition) or the contrasting rooting strategy (interspecific competition). Contrary to the predictions of game-theoretic models, the species that exhibits avoidance of root competition (Glechoma) was not competitively inferior to the species that does not (Fragaria). Glechoma achieved greater total mass in the interspecific treatment than in the intraclonal treatment. However, Fragaria did not experience more intense competition from Glechoma than it did in the intraclonal treatment. Strong interference between the two species appeared to be avoided because Glechoma invested preferentially in rapid exploitation of unoccupied space, whereas Fragaria invested in increasing the competitive ability and local persistence of established ramets. Our results suggest that interspecific trade-offs between traits related to competitive ability and resource exploitation can allow coexistence of species with contrasting rooting behaviours. Full assessment of the adaptive value of different root responses to neighbours therefore requires concurrent consideration of the combined effects of a wide array of functional traits.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1433-1445
    Number of pages13
    JournalEvolutionary Ecology
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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