1 Responses to spatial heterogeneity of soil nutrients were tested in 10 plant species that differ in life form and successional status, but which co-occur in the South Carolina coastal plain. The morphological responses of the root system were tested by assessing scale (represented by root mass and root length densities), precision (preferential proliferation of roots in nutrient-rich patches compared with less fertile patches) and discrimination (ability to detect and proliferate within the richest patches when patches vary in nutrient concentration). We also investigated sensitivity (growth benefits gained as spatial heterogeneity of nutrients increases, measured as total biomass).
2 Ten individuals of each species were grown in pots under four treatments that had differing nutrient distribution but the same overall nutrient addition. Plants were harvested when roots reached pot edge.
3 We observed high variation between species in scale, precision and sensitivity. No significant discrimination responses were observed, although greatest root mass density occurred at intermediate fertility levels for all species.
4 We rejected the hypothesis that scale and precision are negatively correlated. Indeed, in herbaceous species alone, scale and precision were positively correlated.
5 Sensitivity was not closely related to precision, indicating that proliferation of roots in fertile patches does not always yield growth benefits in heterogeneous soils. Further, some sensitive species had very low precision, suggesting that a positive growth response in heterogeneous environments may be related to plasticity in physiology or root life span, rather than morphology.
6 Plant life form was not correlated with precision or sensitivity. However, scale of response was greater in herbs than in woody plants, possibly because the two life forms develop root systems at different rates.