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Mechanisms determining the degree of size asymmetry in competition among plants


When plants are competing, larger individuals often obtain a disproportionate share of the contested resources and suppress the growth of their smaller neighbors, a phenomenon called size-asymmetric competition. We review what is known about the mechanisms that give rise to and modify the degree of size asymmetry in competition among plants, and attempt to clarify some of the confusion in the literature on size asymmetry. We broadly distinguish between mechanisms determined primarily by characteristics of contested resource from those that are influenced by the growth and behavior of the plants themselves. To generate size asymmetric resource competition, a resource must be “pre-emptable.” Because of its directionality, light is the primary, but perhaps not the only, example of a pre-emptable resource. The available data suggest that competition for mineral nutrients is often size symmetric (i.e., contested resources are divided in proportion to competitor sizes), but the potential role of patchily and/or episodically supplied nutrients in causing size asymmetry is largely unexplored. Virtually nothing is known about the size symmetry of competition for water. Plasticity in morphology and physiology acts to reduce the degree of size asymmetry in competition. We argue that an allometric perspective on growth, allocation, resource uptake, and resource utilization can help us understand and quantify the mechanisms through which plants compete.

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Received: 17 February 1997 / Accepted: 8 October 1997

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Schwinning, S., Weiner, J. Mechanisms determining the degree of size asymmetry in competition among plants. Oecologia 113, 447–455 (1998).

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  • Key words Resource competition
  • Allometry of growth and resource uptake
  • Plasticity
  • Spatial patterns
  • Competition in clonal plants.