Get access

Interactions between root and shoot competition vary among species


  • James F. Cahill, Jr.

J. F. Cahill, Jr., Dept of Biological Sci., Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E9, Canada (


Understanding how the competition varies with productivity is essential for differentiating among alternative models of plant community organization. Prior attempts to explain shifts in root and shoot competition along gradients have generally assumed an additive interaction between the two competitive forms, using an experimental design which does not fully separate both above- and belowground processes. At the most basic level, few field studies have separated root and shoot competition, and we have limited knowledge about both the relative importance of these processes, and how they interact to affect plant growth in the field. Presented here are findings from a field study in which root and shoot competition were experimentally separated by using root exclusion tubes and neighbor tiebacks in an early successional community. Individuals of four species (Abutilon theophrasti, Amaranthus retroflexus, Rumex crispus, and Plantago lanceolata) were grown at two levels of fertilization with full competition, aboveground competition only, belowground competition only, or neither above- nor belowground competition. Competition was measured as competitive response, which is the natural log of the relative biomass of a target plant grown with competition compared to growth without competition. In contrast to predictions from current models of productivity-competition relationships, but in agreement with other experimental studies, there was no change in the strengths or root, shoot, or total competition with a modest increase in productivity. Despite no effect of fertilization on the strength of competition, the form of interaction between root and shoot competition varied both as a function of species identity and fertilization. For both of the rosette forming species, the combined effects of root and shoot competition were less than predicted assuming no interaction (a “negative interaction”), with one species switching from a negative to an additive interaction with fertilization. The fact that fertilization caused a shift in the root-shoot interaction, but not in the total strength of root and shoot competition, suggests that the root-shoot interaction is itself a highly labile variable. If root-shoot interactions are common in natural systems, then simply measuring the strength of one form of competition in no way provides any information about the overall importance of that competitive form to plant growth.