Plant species richness belowground: higher richness and new patterns revealed by next-generation sequencing


Inga Hiiesalu, Fax: (+372) 737 6222; E-mail:


Variation in plant species richness has been described using only aboveground vegetation. The species richness of roots and rhizomes has never been compared with aboveground richness in natural plant communities. We made direct comparisons of grassland plant richness in identical volumes (0.1 × 0.1 × 0.1 m) above and below the soil surface, using conventional species identification to measure aboveground richness and 454 sequencing of the chloroplast trnL(UAA) intron to measure belowground richness. We described above- and belowground richness at multiple spatial scales (from a neighbourhood scale of centimetres to a community scale of hundreds of metres), and related variation in richness to soil fertility. Tests using reference material indicated that 454 sequencing captured patterns of species composition and abundance with acceptable accuracy. At neighbourhood scales, belowground richness was up to two times greater than aboveground richness. The relationship between above- and belowground richness was significantly different from linear: beyond a certain level of belowground richness, aboveground richness did not increase further. Belowground richness also exceeded that of aboveground at the community scale, indicating that some species are temporarily dormant and absent aboveground. Similar to other grassland studies, aboveground richness declined with increasing soil fertility; in contrast, the number of species found only belowground increased significantly with fertility. These results indicate that conventional aboveground studies of plant richness may overlook many coexisting species, and that belowground richness becomes relatively more important in conditions where aboveground richness decreases. Measuring plant belowground richness can considerably alter perceptions of biodiversity and its responses to natural and anthropogenic factors.