Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Root system size determines plant performance following short-term soil nutrient pulses

  • 550 Accesses

  • 8 Citations

Abstract

Heterogeneity in soil resources is common in natural communities, in both space and time. In contrast to substantial research into plant responses to spatial nutrient heterogeneity, little is known about the factors that influence plants responses to temporally heterogeneous nutrient supplies. We examine (1) the effects of nutrient pulse length on plant biomass allocation patterns, (2) whether a plant’s root system prior to a nutrient pulse influences the benefit a plant can gain from that pulse, and (3) how competition and nutrient pulses interact to influence plant biomass. To address these issues, we used a pot experiment with varying initial conditions (nutrient levels and competition) designed to produce a range of root system sizes in the grass Poa pratensis. We then subjected the plants to short-term (3 and 10 days long) nutrient pulses where the same total nutrients were delivered at varying rates per unit time (intensity). Plant biomass and tissue nitrogen concentration were lowest when pulses were short relative to either long pulses or continuous supply. Plants with larger root systems at the start of the nutrient pulse gained more benefit than smaller plants because final plant size relative to initial root system size decreased as pulse intensity (nutrients delivered per unit time) increased. This study has two important implications. First, since larger plants benefit disproportionately more from a nutrient pulse than smaller plants, pre-pulse conditions such as the competitive environment and resource supply are likely key determinants of a plant’s ability to capture nutrients from a pulse. Second, the importance of pre-pulse size provides a belowground mechanism to enhance the size variability among plants in a community.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

References

  1. Auerswald K, Mayer F, Schnyder H (2010) Coupling of spatial and temporal pattern of cattle excreta patches on a low intensity pasture. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 88:275–288

  2. Augustine DJ, Frank DA (2001) Effects of migratory grazers on spatial heterogeneity of soil nitrogen properties in a grassland ecosystem. Ecology 82:3149–3162

  3. Bates D (2005) Fitting linear mixed models in R. R-news 5:27–30

  4. Bilbrough CJ, Caldwell MM (1997) Exploitation of springtime ephemeral N pulses by six great basin plant species. Ecology 78:231–243

  5. Bowman WD, Bilbrough CJ (2001) Influence of a pulsed nitrogen supply on growth and nitrogen uptake in alpine graminoids. Plant Soil 233:283–290

  6. Cahill JF (1999) Fertilization effects on interactions between above- and belowground competition in an old field. Ecology 80:466–480

  7. Cahill JF (2002) Interactions between root and shoot competition vary among species. Oikos 99:101–112

  8. Cahill JF, Casper BB (2000) Investigating the relationship between neighbor root biomass and belowground competition: field evidence for symmetric competition belowground. Oikos 90:311–320

  9. Cahill JF, McNickle GG (2011) The behavioral ecology of nutrient foraging by plants. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 42:289–311

  10. Cain ML, Subler S, Evans JP, Fortin M-J (1999) Sampling spatial and temporal variation in soil nitrogen availability. Oecologia 118:397–404

  11. Campbell RD, Grime JP (1989) A comparative study of plant responsiveness to the duration of episodes of mineral nutrient enrichment. New Phytol 112:261–267

  12. Campbell BD, Grime JP, Mackey JML (1991) A trade-off between scale and precision in resource foraging. Oecologia 87:532–538

  13. Casper BB, Jackson RB (1997) Plant competition underground. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 28:545–570

  14. Cui M, Caldwell MM (1997) Growth and nitrogen uptake by Agropyron desertorum and Pseudoroegneria spicata when exposed to nitrate pulses of different duration. Aust J Plant Physiol 24:637–642

  15. Davidson EA, Matson PA, Vitousek PM, Riley R, Dunkin K, Garcia-Mendez G, Maass JM (1993) Processes regulating soil emissions of NO and N2O in a seasonally dry tropical forest. Ecology 74:130–139

  16. Day TA, Detling JK (1990) Grassland patch dynamics and herbivore grazing preference following urine deposition. Ecology 71:180–188

  17. Dell CJ, Rice CW (2005) Short-term competition for ammonium and nitrate in tallgrass prairie. Soil Sci Soc Am J 69:371–377

  18. Farley RA, Fitter AH (1999) Temporal and spatial variation in soil resources in a deciduous woodland. J Ecol 87:688–696

  19. Fransen B, Blijjenberg J, de Kroon H (1999) Root morphological and physiological plasticity of perennial grass species and the exploitation of spatial and temporal heterogeneous nutrient patches. Plant Soil 211:179–189

  20. Goldberg D, Novoplansky A (1997) On the relative importance of competition in unproductive environments. J Ecol 85:409–418

  21. Gross KL, Pregitzer KS, Burton AJ (1995) Spatial variation in nitrogen availability in three successional plant communities. J Ecol 83:357–367

  22. Hodge A (2004) The plastic plant: root responses to heterogeneous supplies of nutrients. New Phytol 162:9–24

  23. Hodge A, Stewart J, Robinson D, Griffiths BS, Fitter AH (1999) Plant, soil fauna and microbial responses to N-rich organic patches of contrasting temporal availability. Soil Biol Biochem 31:1517–1530

  24. Hutchings MJ, John EA, Wijesinghe DK (2003) Toward understanding the consequences of soil heterogeneity for plant populations and communities. Ecology 84:2322–2334

  25. Jackson RB, Caldwell MM (1989) The timing and degree of root proliferation in fertile-soil microsites for three cold-desert perennials. Oecologia 81:149–153

  26. Jackson RB, Caldwell MM (1993) The scale of nutrient heterogeneity around individual plants and its quantification with geostatistics. Ecology 74:612–614

  27. Jackson RB, Manwaring JH, Caldwell MM (1990) Rapid physiological adjustment of roots to localized soil enrichment. Nature 344:58–60

  28. James JJ, Richards JH (2006) Plant nitrogen capture in pulse-driven systems: interactions between root responses and soil processes. J Ecol 94:765–777

  29. Jansen C, Van Kempen MML, Bögemann GM, Bouma TJ, De Kroon H (2006) Limited costs of wrong root placement in Rumex palustris in heterogeneous soils. New Phytol 171:117–126

  30. Jonasson S, Michelsen A, Schmidt IK, Nielsen EV (1999) Responses in microbes and plants to changed temperature, nutrient, and light regimes in the Arctic. Ecology 80:1828–1843

  31. Keddy PA (2001) Competition. Kluwer, Dordrecht

  32. Kembel SW, Cahill JF (2005) Plant phenotypic plasticity belowground: a phylogenetic perspective on root foraging trade-offs. Am Nat 166:216–230

  33. Kembel SW, De Kroon H, Cahill JF, Mommer L (2008) Improving the scale and precision of hypotheses to explain root foraging ability. Ann Bot 101:1295–1301

  34. Lamb EG, Haag JJ, Cahill JF (2004) Patch-background contrast and patch density have limited effects on root proliferation and plant performance in Abutilon theophrasti. Funct Ecol 18:836–844

  35. Lamb EG, Shore BS, Cahill JF (2007) Water and nitrogen addition differentially impact plant competition in a native rough fescue grassland. Plant Ecol 192:21–33

  36. Lamb EG, Kembel SW, Cahill JF (2009) Shoot, but not root, competition reduces community diversity in experimental mesocosms. J Ecol 97:155–163

  37. Lauenroth WK, Sala OE, Milchunas DG, Lathrop RW (1987) Root dynamics of Bouteloua gracilis during short-term recovery from drought. Funct Ecol 1:117–124

  38. Levang-Brilz N, Biondini ME (2003) Growth rate, root development and nutrient uptake of 55 plant species from the Great Plains Grasslands, USA. Plant Ecol 165:117–144

  39. Mommer L, Visser E, van Ruijven J, de Caluwe H, Pierik R, de Kroon H (2011) Contrasting root behaviour in two grass species: a test of functionality in dynamic heterogeneous conditions. Plant Soil 344:347–360

  40. Novoplansky A, Goldberg DE (2001) Effects of water pulsing on individual performance and competitive hierarchies in plants. J Veg Sci 12:199–208

  41. Nye PH, Tinker PB (1977) Solute movement in the soil-root system. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA

  42. Peek MS, Forseth IN (2003) Enhancement of photosynthesis and growth of an aridland perennial in response to soil nitrogen pulses generated by mule deer. Environ Exp Bot 49:169–180

  43. R Development Core Team (2010) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna

  44. Robinson D (1994) The responses of plants to non-uniform supplies of nutrients. New Phytol 127:635–674

  45. Robinson D (1996) Resource capture by localized root proliferation: why do plants bother? Ann Bot 77:179–185

  46. Robinson D, Hodge A, Griffiths BS, Fitter AH (1999) Plant root proliferation in nitrogen-rich patches confers competitive advantage. Proc R Soc Lond B 266:431–435

  47. Shemesh H, Arbiv A, Gersani M, Ovadia O, Novoplansky A (2010) The effects of nutrient dynamics on root patch choice. PLoS ONE 5:e10824

  48. Sher AA, Goldberg DE, Novoplansky A (2004) The effect of mean and variance in resource supply on survival of annuals from mediterranean and desert environments. Oecologia 141:353–362

  49. Valverde T, Pisanty I, Rincón E (1997) Growth response of six tropical dune plant species to different nutrient regimes. J Coast Res 13:497–505

  50. van Vuuren MMI, Robinson D, Griffiths BS (1996) Nutrient inflow and root proliferation during the exploitation of a temporally and spatially discreet source of nitrogen in soil. Plant Soil 178:185–192

  51. Wang P, Stieglitz T, Zhou DW, Cahill JF Jr (2010) Are competitive effect and response two sides of the same coin, or fundamentally different? Funct Ecol 24:196–207

  52. Weiner J (1986) How competition for light and nutrients affects size variability in Ipomoea tricolor populations. Ecology 67:1425–1427

  53. Wijesinghe DK, John EA, Hutchings MJ (2005) Does pattern of soil resource heterogeneity determine plant community structure? An experimental investigation. J Ecol 93:99–112

  54. Wilson JB (1988) Shoot competition and root competition. J Appl Ecol 25:279–296

Download references

Acknowledgments

Financial support for this project came from the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, an NSERC Discovery Grant to JFC, and a Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant to EGL. Candace Piper and several anonymous reviewers provided comments on the manuscript.

Author information

Correspondence to Eric G. Lamb.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 94 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Lamb, E.G., Stewart, A.C. & Cahill, J.F. Root system size determines plant performance following short-term soil nutrient pulses. Plant Ecol 213, 1803–1812 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11258-012-0135-0

Download citation

Keywords

  • Competition
  • Nutrient pulse
  • Root system size
  • Soil nutrient heterogeneity