Resource competition and allelopathy in two peat mosses: implication for niche differentiation

  • Chao Liu
  • Zhao-Jun BuEmail author
  • Azim Mallik
  • Line Rochefort
  • Xue-Feng Hu
  • Zicheng Yu
Regular Article



Separating the effect of resource competition from allelopathy in plants is challenging and it has never been attempted in closely related co-occurring bryophytes. In peatlands, peat mosses (Sphagnum spp.) show niche differentiation along water table level (WTL) gradient. Our aim was to evaluate whether the hummock species, S. magellanicum would be a winner at low WTL due to its allelopathic advantage and the hollow species, S. angustifolium would win by virtue of its superior competitive ability but not of allelopathy at high WTL due to dilution of its allelochemicals.


We used a nested, field experimental design, with two WTL treatments—low WTL (hummock habitat) and high WTL (hollow habitat)—and three different inter-specific interactions: 1) monoculture; 2) mixed culture without activated charcoal; and 3) mixed culture with activated charcoal added to the neighbor. We measured growth and biochemical traits of the two species and compared the index of relative neighbor effect on each other.


We discovered a trade-off between biomass production (competitive outcome) and phenolic content (allelopathy) in these species. At low WTL, allelopathy of the hummock species is the main mechanism to suppress the hollow species, whereas at high WTL, competition is the main driver to suppress the hummock species.


Competitive advantage in Sphagnum is mediated by both resource competition and allelopathy of the co-occurring species through niche differentiation along a WTL gradient. Unlike vascular plants, Sphagnum mosses can serve as excellent model organisms in studying allelopathic interaction since they bypass the complexity of plant-soil interactions.


Sphagnum Water table level Trade-off Niche separation Phenolics Phenotypic responses 



This study was funded by the National Nature Science Foundation of China (No. 41871046 and 41471043), the National Key Research and Development Project (No. 2016YFA0602301 and No. 2016YFC0500407) and Jilin Provincial Science and Technology Development Project (20190101025JH). Håkan Rydin commented on the manuscript. Azim Mallik contributed to this paper during his tenure as a Visiting Professor at the School of Geographical Sciences, Northeast Normal University, Changchun.

Supplementary material

11104_2019_4350_MOESM1_ESM.docx (174 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 174 kb)


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Geographical Processes and Ecological Security in Changbai Mountains, Ministry of Education, School of Geographical SciencesNortheast Normal UniversityChangchunChina
  2. 2.Department of Plant SciencesUniversité LavalQuébecCanada
  3. 3.State Environmental Protection Key Laboratory of Wetland Ecology and Vegetation Restoration, Institute for Peat and Mire ResearchNortheast Normal UniversityChangchunChina
  4. 4.Jilin Provincial Key Laboratory for Wetland Ecological Processes and Environmental Change in the Changbai MountainsChangchunChina
  5. 5.Department of BiologyLakehead UniversityThunder BayCanada
  6. 6.Department of Earth and Environmental SciencesLehigh UniversityBethlehemUSA

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