Plant and Soil

, Volume 384, Issue 1–2, pp 113–129 | Cite as

Drought changes the structure and elemental composition of very fine roots in seedlings of ten woody tree species. Implications for a drier climate

  • Manuel Olmo
  • Bárbara Lopez-Iglesias
  • Rafael VillarEmail author
Regular Article


Background and aims

Water availability is often one of the most limiting factors for plants. Climate change predictions for many areas suggest an intensification of water limitation. The ability of a plant to modify its root characteristics can be an important mechanism for preventing drought stress.


We studied the drought response of seedlings of 10 woody species and compared the biomass allocation, vertical root distribution across different root diameters, and the key traits of very fine roots (root diameter <0.5 mm) under two water regimes (no water limitation and severe drought).


Under drought conditions, the very fine roots had a higher specific root length (SRL, root length: biomass ratio), smaller root diameter and higher root tissue mass density, as well as a lower nitrogen concentration. A higher value of the mean root plasticity index was related to higher drought resistance. A quantitative literature review showed that there was a wide variation in the effect of the drought on SRL, thus there was not a clear effect of drought on SRL.


Certain species have the necessary root traits and plasticity to survive drought. We have identified plasticity in root characteristics as a whole-plant trait which plays a significant role in separating out species into those which are vulnerable and those which are resistant to drought.


Biomass allocation Drought Plasticity Vertical root distribution Root traits Specific root length Survival 



This study was supported by an FPI-MEC pre-doctoral fellowship awarded to BL (BES-2009-016985), the coordinated Spanish MEC projects INTERBOS (CGL2008-04503-CO3-02) and DIVERBOS (CGL2011-30285-C02-02), the ANASINQUE project (PGC2010-RNM-5782), the Life + Biodehesa Project (11/BIO/ES/000726) and FEDER funding. We thank the Consejería de Medio Ambiente (Junta de Andalucía, Spain) for providing the seedlings for this experiment. Mar Ávila and Daniel Sánchez helped in the experiment and Simón Cuadros let us use the WinRHIZO analysis equipment. Thanks to Enrique Garcia de la Riva and José Luis Quero for their comments aimed at improving the manuscript. Our research group is a member of the GLOBIMED network (

Supplementary material

11104_2014_2178_MOESM5_ESM.doc (160 kb)
Figure S1 Annual rainfall in the South of Spain (Córdoba) from 1920 to 2013. (Data from AEMET, Agencia Estatal de Meteorología). Pearson correlation coefficient and significance levels are given: (* P < 0.05). (DOC 160 kb)
11104_2014_2178_MOESM6_ESM.doc (660 kb)
Figure S2 (a) Experimental design diagram with harvests and treatments: initial control plants (C1); watered plants (final control plants, C2) and plants in drought (D). (b) Mean ± SE of plant biomass for each species and treatments. (DOC 660 kb)
11104_2014_2178_MOESM7_ESM.doc (223 kb)
Figure S3 Mean ± SE of relative soil water content for all species during drought. (DOC 223 kb)
11104_2014_2178_MOESM8_ESM.doc (472 kb)
Figure S4 Mean ± SE of vertical root distribution (proportion of total root biomass in one layer, g g−1). Layer 1: 0–10 cm; Layer 2: 10–20 cm; Layer 3: 20–30 cm; Layer 4: 30–40 cm for the ten species and two treatments (control in red and drought in yellow). (DOC 472 kb)
11104_2014_2178_MOESM9_ESM.doc (582 kb)
Figure S5 Relationship between specific root length (SRL) and: (a) root diameter (RD); (b) root tissue mass density (TMDr) for the two treatments (control in red and drought in yellow). Pearson correlation coefficient and significance levels are given: (n.s. P > 0.1; * P < 0.05; ** P < 0.01) (DOC 582 kb)
11104_2014_2178_MOESM1_ESM.doc (34 kb)
Table S1 (DOC 33 kb)
11104_2014_2178_MOESM2_ESM.doc (130 kb)
Table S2 (DOC 130 kb)
11104_2014_2178_MOESM3_ESM.doc (74 kb)
Appendix S1 (DOC 74 kb)
11104_2014_2178_MOESM4_ESM.doc (34 kb)
Appendix S2 (DOC 33 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Manuel Olmo
    • 1
  • Bárbara Lopez-Iglesias
    • 1
  • Rafael Villar
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Area de Ecología, Facultad de CienciasUniversidad de CórdobaCórdobaSpain

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