Small-scale grassland assembly patterns differ above and below the soil surface


  • Corresponding Editor: J. Weiner.


The existence of deterministic assembly rules for plant communities remains an important and unresolved topic in ecology. Most studies examining community assembly have sampled aboveground species diversity and composition. However, plants also coexist belowground, and many coexistence theories invoke belowground competition as an explanation for aboveground patterns. We used next-generation sequencing that enables the identification of roots and rhizomes from mixed-species samples to measure coexisting species at small scales in temperate grasslands. We used comparable data from above (conventional methods) and below (molecular techniques) the soil surface (0.1 × 0.1 × 0.1 m volume). To detect evidence for nonrandom patterns in the direction of biotic or abiotic assembly processes, we used three assembly rules tests (richness variance, guild proportionality, and species co-occurrence indices) as well as pairwise association tests. We found support for biotic assembly rules aboveground, with lower variance in species richness than expected and more negative species associations. Belowground plant communities were structured more by abiotic processes, with greater variability in richness and guild proportionality than expected. Belowground assembly is largely driven by abiotic processes, with little evidence for competition-driven assembly, and this has implications for plant coexistence theories that are based on competition for soil resources.