Lack of relationship between below-ground competition and allocation to roots in 10 grassland species


James F. Cahill Jr (fax +1780 4929234, e-mail


  • 1A field experiment in a native grassland in Central Alberta, Canada, tested whether plants alter relative allocation to roots vs. shoots in response to below-ground competition, and whether the mass of a species’ root system accounts for interspecific differences in below-ground competitive response.
  • 2Seedlings of each of 10 native species were transplanted into the naturally occurring vegetation in the field at the start of the growing season. Root interactions between the target plants and their neighbours were manipulated through the use of PVC root exclusion tubes, with target plants grown with or without potential root interactions with their neighbours. Neighbour shoots were also tied back, forcing any target–neighbour interactions to be below ground.
  • 3Below-ground competition generally reduced plant growth, with its relative magnitude varying among species.
  • 4An allometric analysis indicated that competition below ground did not result in an increase in the relative biomass allocated to roots for any of the 10 target species. This is counter to the growth-balance hypothesis (and optimal foraging theory). Below-ground competition did increase root : shoot ratios, but this was due to reduced plant size (small plants have larger root : shoot ratios), rather than adaptive plasticity.
  • 5A species’ below-ground competitive ability was not related to its root system size. Although this finding is counter to commonly made assumptions, it is supported by other work demonstrating below-ground competition to be generally size-symmetric.
  • 6Despite the majority of plant–plant interactions in grasslands being below ground, our understanding of plant competition above ground is significantly more robust. Several wide-spread assumptions regarding below-ground competition are suspect, and more multispecies studies such as this are required to provide a fuller picture of how plants respond to, and compete for, soil resources.