When dense populations of even-aged plant monocultures are subject to intense competition, mortality can occur in a process known as self-thinning, in which changes in biomass are accompanied by decreases in density. On a plot of log biomass versus log density, self-thinning populations show a linear relationship called the self-thinning line. Variations in the fertility level of the substrate are known to affect self-thinning in a number of ways. Populations from substrates with different fertility levels have been observed to self-thin along the same line, or along different lines. A review of several experiments using the one species grown at different fertility levels was undertaken to look for any mechanisms that might account for the different patterns observed. It was postulated that the critical difference between whether populations followed a common or different line was the way in which competition developed in the stands as biomass accumulated. For the common-line pattern, data on the canopy volume required to support a given biomass showed that biomass packing did not differ between fertility levels, supporting the model of a common competitive mechanism operating at all fertility levels. When different lines were observed, the development of competition differed as plants increased in size and biomass accumulated at each fertility level. Over the upper range of fertility levels, biomass packing values per plant increased as fertility declined and the position of self-thinning lines followed predictions from biomass packing data. At the low end of the fertility scale, biomass packing values still decreased with fertility level, but the position of self-thinning lines was not linked to the biomass packing of individual plants: root interactions were presumed to dominate competition and the trajectory of self-thinning lines.