Supply pre-emption, not concentration reduction, is the mechanism of competition for nutrients


Author for correspondence: Joseph M. Craine Tel: +1 603 646 2721 Fax: +1 603 646 1682 Email:


  • • Concentration reduction theory is the leading theory regarding the mechanism of competition for nutrients in soils among plants, yet it has not been rigorously tested.
  • • Here we used a spatially explicit, fine-scale grid-based model that simulated diffusion and plant uptake of nutrients by plants in soil to test whether concentration reduction theory was appropriate for terrestrial plant competition for nutrients.
  • • In the absence of competition, increasing the rate of diffusion allows a plant to maintain positive growth rates below the lowest average concentration to which it can reduce nutrients in soil solution (R*). As such, differences among plants in the reduction of soil moisture, which here primarily affects nutrient diffusion, can cause R* to predict competitive success incorrectly. The stronger competitor for nutrients captures the largest proportion of the nutrient supply by ensuring nutrients contact its roots before those of a competitor.
  • • Although the metric derived from concentration reduction theory, R*, might have predictive power for competitive outcomes in terrestrial ecosystems, this evidence suggests that plants outcompete other plants for nutrients by pre-empting the supply, not reducing the average concentration.