Plant-soil feedbacks and root responses of two Mediterranean oaks along a precipitation gradient



Plant-soil feedbacks (PSFs) have been shown to be relevant drivers of forest community dynamics. However, few studies have explored variation of PSFs along environmental gradients. In a framework of climate change, there is a great need to understand how interactions between plants and soil microbes respond along climatic gradients. Therefore, we compared PSFs along a precipitation gradient in Mediterranean oak forests and included trait responses. Following the Stress Gradient Hypothesis (SGH), we expected less negative or even positive PSFs in the physically harsh dry end of our gradient and more negative PSFs in the wettest end.


We grew Quercus ilex and Quercus suber acorns on soil inoculated with microbes sampled under adults of both species in six sites ranging in annual precipitation. After 4 months, we measured shoot biomass and allocation and morphological traits above and belowground.


We found negative PSFs for Q. ilex independent of precipitation, whereas for Q. suber PSFs ranged from positive in dry sites to negative in wet sites, in agreement with the SGH. The leaf allocation showed patterns similar to shoot biomass, but belowground allocation and morphological traits revealed responses which could not be detected aboveground.


We provide first evidence for context-dependent PSFs along a precipitation gradient. Moreover, we show that measuring root traits can help improve our understanding of climate-dependent PSFs. Such understanding helps to predict plant soil microbe interactions, and their role as drivers of plant community dynamics under ongoing climate change.

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plant soil feedback


leaf mass fraction


root mass fraction


Specific leaf area


Specific root length


Root tissue density


root diameter


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We thank P. Ruiz-Benito and L. Matías for help with the NFI3 and field site selection. L. Matías and S. Soliveres for discussions, and three anonymous reviewers for useful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. This study was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) in the context of a mobility fellowship granted to G.R. (P2BEP3_162092). L.G.A. acknowledges support from the MICINN project INTERCAPA (CGL-2014-56739-R).

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Correspondence to Gemma Rutten.

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Rutten, G., Gómez-Aparicio, L. Plant-soil feedbacks and root responses of two Mediterranean oaks along a precipitation gradient. Plant Soil 424, 221–231 (2018).

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  • Plant-soil interactions
  • Root morphological traits
  • Mediterranean oaks
  • Drought
  • Recruitment limitation
  • Intraspecific trait variability
  • Soil microbes