Above- and below-ground plant traits are not consistent in response to drought and competition treatments

Background and Aims -- Our understanding of plant responses to biotic and abiotic drivers is largely based on above-ground plant traits, with little focus on below-ground traits despite their key role in water and nutrient uptake. Here, we aimed to understand the extent to which above- and below-ground traits are co-ordinated, and how these traits respond to soil moisture gradients and plant intraspecific competition.

Methods -- We chose seedlings of five tropical tree species and grew them in a greenhouse for 16 weeks under a soil moisture gradient [low (drought), medium and high (well-watered) moisture levels] with and without intraspecific competition. At harvest, we measured nine above- and five below-ground traits of all seedlings based on standard protocols.

Key Results -- In response to the soil moisture gradient, above-ground traits are found to be consistent with the leaf economics spectrum, whereas below-ground traits are inconsistent with the root economics spectrum. We found high specific leaf area and total leaf area in well-watered conditions, while high leaf dry matter content, leaf thickness and stem dry matter content were observed in drought conditions. However, below-ground traits showed contrasting patterns, with high specific root length but low root branching index in the low water treatment. The correlations between above- and below-ground traits across the soil moisture gradient were variable, i.e. specific leaf area was positively correlated with specific root length, while it was negatively correlated with root average diameter across moisture levels. However, leaf dry matter content was unexpectedly positively correlated with both specific root length and root branching index. Intraspecific competition has influenced both above- and below-ground traits, but interacted with soil moisture to affect only below-ground traits. Consistent with functional equilibrium theory, more biomass was allocated to roots under drought conditions, and to leaves under sufficient soil moisture conditions.

Conclusions -- Our results indicate that the response of below-ground traits to plant intraspecific competition and soil moisture conditions may not be inferred using above-ground traits, suggesting that multiple resource use axes are needed to understand plant ecological strategies. Lack of consistent leaf–root trait correlations across the soil moisture gradient highlight the multidimensionality of plant trait relationships which needs more exploration.

Asefa, M., Worthy S.J., Cao, M., Song, X.Y., Lozano, Y.M., & Yang, J.
Annals of Botany