Understanding plant rooting patterns in semi-arid systems: an integrated model analysis of climate, soil type and plant biomass


Mark van Wijk, Plant Production Systems, Wageningen University, Droevendaalsesteeg 1, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands. E-mail: mark.vanwijk@wur.nl


Aim  A consistent set of root characteristics for herbaceous plants growing in water-limited environments has been developed based on compilations of global root databases, but an overall analysis of why these characteristics occur is still missing. The central question in this study is whether an ecohydrological model which assumes that rooting strategies reflect maximization of transpiration can predict the variations in rooting strategies of plants in dry environments.

Location  Arid ecosystems across the globe.

Methods  A model was used to explore interactions between plant biomass, root–shoot allocation, root distribution, rainfall, soil type and water use by plants.

Results  Model analyses showed that the predicted shifts in rooting depth and root–shoot allocation due to changes in rainfall, soil type and plant biomass were quite similar to observed shifts. The model predicted that soil type, annual rainfall and plant biomass each had strong effects on the rooting strategies that optimize transpiration, but also that these factors have strong interactive effects. The process by which plants compete for water availability (soil evaporation or drainage) especially affected the depth distribution of roots in the soil, whereas the availability of rainfall mainly affected the optimal root–shoot allocation strategy.

Main conclusions  The empirically observed key patterns in rooting characteristics of herbaceous plant species in arid environments could be explained in this theoretical study by using the concept of hydrological optimality, represented here by the maximization of transpiration.