Investigating the relationship between neighbor root biomass and belowground competition: field evidence for symmetric competition belowground


  • James F. Cahill, Jr.,

  • Brenda B. Casper

J. F. Cahill Jr. and B. B. Casper, Dept of Biology, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6018, USA (present address JFC: Dept of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada T6G 2E9 []).


Little is known about how small-scale variation in neighbor biomass can influence the strength of root competition experienced by an individual plant. In this study, modified root exclusion tubes were used to vary the accessibility of the soil space surrounding Amaranthus retroflexus target plants to the neighboring plants. A gradient of root accessibility was created by drilling varying numbers of holes into standard root exclusion tubes, made of 15 cm diameter PVC pipe. Belowground competitive intensity, defined as biomass reduction due to root interactions alone, relative to growth in the absence of neighbors, was then measured along the resulting gradient of neighbor root densities. At low neighbor root abundances the strength of belowground competition was proportional to neighbor root biomass, consistent with prior evidence that belowground competition is symmetric. If belowground competition were asymmetric, neighbor roots should have had little effect on target plants when they are rare relative to those of the target plant. At higher neighbor root abundances, belowground competitive intensity should increase rapidly. The strong relationship found between neighbor root biomass and belowground competitive intensity suggests relatively small variations in root biomass could lead to large variations in belowground competition. Reduced belowground competition in areas with low root biomass could have important implications for the establishment and growth of poor belowground competitors, suggesting a mechanism by which species coexistence may occur despite extremely intense root competition.