Root plasticity buffers competition among plants: theory meets experimental data


Morphological plasticity is a striking characteristic of plants in natural communities. In the context of foraging behavior particularly, root plasticity has been documented for numerous species. Root plasticity is known to mitigate competitive interactions by reducing the overlap of the individuals’ rhizospheres. But despite its obvious effect on resource acquisition, plasticity has been generally neglected in previous empirical and theoretical studies estimating interaction intensity among plants. In this study, we developed a semi-mechanistic model that addresses this shortcoming by introducing the idea of compensatory growth into the classical-zone-of influence (ZOI) and field-of-neighborhood (FON) approaches. The model parameters describing the belowground plastic sphere of influence (PSI) were parameterized using data from an accompanying field experiment. Measurements of the uptake of a stable nutrient analogue at distinct distances to the neighboring plants showed that the study species responded plastically to belowground competition by avoiding overlap of individuals’ rhizospheres. An unexpected finding was that the sphere of influence of the study species Bromus hordeaceus could be best described by a unimodal function of distance to the plant’s center and not with a continuously decreasing function as commonly assumed. We employed the parameterized model to investigate the interplay between plasticity and two other important factors determining the intensity of competitive interactions: overall plant density and the distribution of individuals in space. The simulation results confirm that the reduction of competition intensity due to morphological plasticity strongly depends on the spatial structure of the competitive environment. We advocate the use of semi-mechanistic simulations that explicitly consider morphological plasticity to improve our mechanistic understanding of plant interactions.