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Keywords:

  • Alpine nutrient cycling;
  • evolutionary specialization;
  • global change;
  • nitrogen isotope;
  • nutrient uptake strategy;
  • plant traits;
  • root anatomy;
  • snow-bed ecosystems;
  • specific root length;
  • translocation

Abstract

The evolution of plants has yielded a wealth of adaptations for the acquisition of key mineral nutrients. These include the structure, physiology and positioning of root systems. We report the discovery of specialized snow roots as a plant strategy to cope with the very short season for nutrient uptake and growth in alpine snow-beds, i.e. patches in the landscape that remain snow-covered well into the summer. We provide anatomical, chemical and experimental 15N isotope tracking evidence that the Caucasian snow-bed plant Corydalis conorhiza forms extensive networks of specialized above-ground roots, which grow against gravity to acquire nitrogen directly from within snow packs. Snow roots capture nitrogen that would otherwise partly run off down-slope over a frozen surface, thereby helping to nourish these alpine ecosystems. Climate warming is changing and will change mountain snow regimes, while large-scale anthropogenic N deposition has increased snow N contents. These global changes are likely to impact on the distribution, abundance and functional significance of snow roots.