Species Interactions at the Level of Fine Roots in the Field: Influence of Soil Nutrient Heterogeneity and Plant Size

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Interference at the level of fine roots in the field was studied by detailed examination of fine root distribution in small soil patches. To capture roots as they occur in natural three-dimensional soil space, we used a freezing and slicing technique for microscale root mapping. The location of individual roots intersecting a sliced soil core surface was digitized and the identity of shrub and grass roots was established by a chemical technique. Soil patches were created midway between the shrub, Artemisia tridentata, and one of two tussock grasses, Pseudoroegneria spicata or Agropyron desertorum. Some soil patches were enriched with nutrients and others given only deionized water (control); in addition, patches were located between plants of different size combination (large shrubs with small tussock grasses and small shrubs with large tussock grasses). The abundance of shrub and grass roots sharing soil patches and the inter-root distances of individual fine roots were measured. Total average rooting density in patches varied among these different treatment combinations by only a factor of 2, but the proportion of shrub and grass roots in the patches varied sixfold. For the shrub, the species of grass roots sharing the patches had a pronounced influence on shrub root density; shrub roots were more abundant if the patch was shared with Pseudoroegneria roots than if shared with Agropyron roots. The relative size of plants whose roots shared the soil patches also influenced the proportion of shrub and grass roots; larger plants were able to place more roots in the patches than were the smaller plants. In the nutrient-enriched patches, these influences of grass species and size combination were amplified. At the millimeter- to centimeter-scale within patches, shrub and grass roots tended to segregate, i.e., avoid each other, based on nearest-neighbor distances. At this scale, there was no indication that the species-specific interactions were the result of resource competition, since there were no obvious patterns between the proportion of shrub and grass roots of the two species combinations with microsite nutrient concentrations. Other potential mechanisms are discussed. Interference at the fine-root level, and its species-specific character, is likely an influential component of competitive success, but one that is not easily assessed.

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