The distribution of below-ground traits is explained by intrinsic species differences and intraspecific plasticity in response to root neighbours


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  1. Large variation in tree root architecture and morphology has been reported for temperate forest communities. However, it is not clear whether this variation represents adaptation of species to specific soil properties, alternative resource acquisition strategies among co-occurring species, or canalized traits without a strong impact on the success of individuals in different environments. Here, our goal was to test these alternative hypotheses and quantify how community-aggregated and intraspecific root trait variations are explained by biotic versus abiotic mechanisms in a temperate deciduous forest.
  2. We conducted our study in an Acer-Fagus-dominated forest in north-east Ohio, USA. Using molecular barcoding techniques, we identified 738 root systems belonging to 14 tree species. We measured seven functional root traits related to root architecture and morphology at the species and community-aggregated levels.
  3. Although we found significant relationships between soil resource gradients and root trait distributions, intrinsic differences between coexisting species were more important than soil factors in explaining the distribution of root traits in the community. Additionally, root trait variation at the species level was also influenced by the presence of other species within cores.
  4. Community-aggregated variation was more influenced by the combination of species present than soil properties in each sample, suggesting that biotic interactions play an important role in controlling community root trait distribution.
  5. Synthesis. We propose that root trait differentiation between coexisting species is the result of inherent differences between species and plasticity-mediated responses to neighbours. Hence, the large variation in root traits reported in temperate forest seems to reflect alternative evolutionary pathways that allow individuals to exploit distinct niches in relatively close proximity.