Plant Ecology

, Volume 216, Issue 4, pp 615–627 | Cite as

Root biomass and soil δ13C in C3 and C4 grasslands along a precipitation gradient

  • Courtney L. Angelo
  • Stephanie Pau


Many studies have investigated the aboveground distributions of C3 and C4 grasses along climatic gradients because they illustrate complex interactions between abiotic and biotic controls on ecosystem functions. Yet few studies have examined belowground components of these distributions, which may present very different patterns compared with aboveground measures. In this study, we surveyed grass species cover and collected soil and root samples from field plots at 100–150-m elevation intervals along a climatic gradient in Hawai‘i. We examined how the relationship between soil carbon isotopic composition (δ13C), a proxy for C4 dominance, and % C4 cover changed along a climatic gradient. We also evaluated root biomass to determine if belowground dominance reflects aboveground patterns under climate variation. Results showed that soil δ13C under predicted C4 dominance in wetter sites. The relationship between % C4 cover and soil δ13C became more negative with increasing mean annual precipitation (MAP) based on a linear mixed-effects model (F 1,34 = 12.25, P < 0.01). Soil δ13C in wetter sites indicated a larger C3 contribution than estimated by aboveground cover, which was in part due to C3 root biomass increasing (P < 0.05), whereas C4 root biomass did not change along the precipitation gradient. C3 and C4 grasses appear to allocate disproportionately belowground; thus, a different understanding of C4 ecological dominance (biomass or productivity) may emerge when considering both the above and belowground components. Our results show that belowground allocation and interpretation of soil δ13C need to be more carefully considered in global vegetation and carbon models and paleoecological reconstructions of C4 dominance.


Belowground allocation Climate variation Dominance patterns Ecosystem function Grasses Hawaiian Islands 



This work was completed with the assistance of Rhonda Loh and access to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. This research was supported by funding from the Geography Department at Florida State University (FSU). We thank Brian Popp’s and Travis Idol’s labs for help with sample preparation and analysis at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa (UHM). We also gratefully appreciate the assistance of Marian Chau, Susan Crow, and David Beilman at the UHM and of Mike Patterson at FSU.

Supplementary material

11258_2015_463_MOESM1_ESM.doc (1.8 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 1855 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyFlorida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

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