Root proliferation in decaying roots and old root channels: a nutrient conservation mechanism in oligotrophic mangrove forests?


  • Karen L. McKee

    Corresponding author
    1. U. S. Geological Survey, National Wetlands Research Center, 700 Cajundome Boulevard, Lafayette, Louisiana 70506, USA
    Search for more papers by this author

Karen L. McKee (fax +1 337 2668586; e-mail


  • 1In oligotrophic habitats, proliferation of roots in nutrient-rich microsites may contribute to overall nutrient conservation by plants. Peat-based soils on mangrove islands in Belize are characterized by the presence of decaying roots and numerous old root channels (0.1–3.5 cm diameter) that become filled with living and highly branched roots of Rhizophora mangle and Avicennia germinans. The objectives of this study were to quantify the proliferation of roots in these microsites and to determine what causes this response.
  • 2Channels formed by the refractory remains of mangrove roots accounted for only 1–2% of total soil volume, but the proportion of roots found within channels varied from 9 to 24% of total live mass. Successive generations of roots growing inside increasingly smaller root channels were also found.
  • 3When artificial channels constructed of PVC pipe were buried in the peat for 2 years, those filled with nutrient-rich organic matter had six times more roots than empty or sand-filled channels, indicating a response to greater nutrient availability rather than to greater space or less impedance to root growth.
  • 4Root proliferation inside decaying roots may improve recovery of nutrients released from decomposing tissues before they can be leached or immobilized in this intertidal environment. Greatest root proliferation in channels occurred in interior forest zones characterized by greater soil waterlogging, which suggests that this may be a strategy for nutrient capture that minimizes oxygen losses from the whole root system.
  • 5Improved efficiency of nutrient acquisition at the individual plant level has implications for nutrient economy at the ecosystem level and may explain, in part, how mangroves persist and grow in nutrient-poor environments.