Root competition inhibits root proliferation. All else equal, a plant should invest roots in a nutrient patch devoid of roots rather than one already occupied by roots. Less clear is how a plant should respond to intra-plant versus inter-plant root competition. We consider three responses for how a plant may select habitats based on intra-versus inter-plant root competition: inter-plant avoidance, resource matching, or intra-plant avoidance. The first assumes that plants prefer to have their own space and preferentially proliferate roots away from neighboring plants. The second response, based on the ideal free distribution, assumes that plants invest so as to equalize average returns from roots, regardless of the identity of the neighboring roots. The third, based on game theory, assumes that the plant proliferates roots so as to maximize whole-plant fitness, in which case it is better to proliferate plants among a neighbor's roots than to continue proliferating amongst one's own roots. To test among these models we grew beans (Phaseolus varigaris, var. Kenya) in a greenhouse under two planting scenarios. Both scenario were tested under 0.5 and 0.1 strength of nutrient solution. Under scenario A (fence-sitters), two split-root plants each shared two patches by virtue of having roots in each. Under scenario B (owners) two plants each had their own patch. The results supported the game theory model of intra-plant avoidance (whole plant habitat selection). Fence-sitters produced 150% more root mass per individual than owners. Owners produced 90% more yield (dry mass of pods) than fence-sitters. Furthermore, owners had significantly higher shoot-root ratios than fence-sitters. These effects did not vary with high or low nutrient levels. The over-proliferation of roots under inter-plant competition (fence-sitters) was manifest by the tenth day after planting. In short, the fence-sitters engaged in a tragedy of the commons in which they competed with each other through root proliferation. At the ESS, the fitness maximizing strategy of the individual is to sacrifice collective yield in a quest to `steal' nutrients from its neighbor. The research has three implications. First, plants may be able to assess and respond to local opportunities in a manner that maximizes the good of the whole plant. Second, nutrient foraging as a game may provide a fresh perceptive for viewing root competition either intra-specifically or inter-specifically. Third, it may be possible to increase the yield of certain crop species by breeding more `docile' cultivars that do not overproduce roots in response to inter-plant competition.
crop yield evolutionary game theory plant competition root competition nutrient foraging