Do shallow soil, low water availability, or their combination increase the competition between grasses with different root systems in karst soil?

Yajie Zhao, Zhou Li, Jing Zhang, Haiyan Song, Qianhui Liang, Jianping Tao, Johannes H.C. Cornelissen, Jinchun Liu*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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    Uneven soil depth and low water availability are the key limiting factors to vegetation restoration and reconstruction in limestone soils such as in vulnerable karst regions. Belowground competition will possibly increase under limited soil resources. Here, we investigate whether low resource availability (including shallow soil, low water availability, and shallow soil and low water availability combined) stimulates the competition between grasses with different root systems in karst soil, by assessing their growth response, biomass allocation, and morphological plasticity. In a full three-way factorial blocked design of soil depth by water availability by neighbor identity, we grew Festuca arundinacea (deep-rooted) and Lolium perenne (shallow-rooted) under normal versus shallow soil depth, high versus low water availability, and in monoculture (conspecific neighbor) versus mixture (neighbor of the other species). The key results were as follows: (1) total biomass and aboveground biomass in either of the species decreased with reduction of resources but were not affected by planting patterns (monoculture or mixture) even at low resource levels. (2) For F. arundinacea, root biomass, root mass fraction, total root length, and root volume were higher in mixture than in monoculture at high resource level (consistent with resource use complementarity), but lower in mixture than in monoculture at low resource levels (consistent with interspecific competition). In contrast for L. perenne, either at high or low resource level, these root traits had mostly similar values at both planting patterns. These results suggest that deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plant species can coexist in karst regions under current climatic regimes. Declining resources, due to shallow soil, a decrease in precipitation, or combined shallow soil and karst drought, increased the root competition between plants of deep-rooted and shallow-rooted species. The root systems of deep-rooted plants may be too small to get sufficient water and nutrients from dry, shallow soil, while shallow-rooted plants will maintain a dominant position with their already adaptive strategy in respect of root biomass allocation and root growth.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)10640-10651
    Number of pages12
    JournalEnvironmental Science and Pollution Research International
    Issue number11
    Early online date11 Mar 2017
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


    This study was financially supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31500399) and the Chongqing Natural Science Foundation (cstc2014jcyjA80016) to J.C. Liu. An associated research visit by JHCC to Chongqing was supported by CEP grant 12CDP007 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). We also want to thank Dr. Xinyi Xiang for contributing on polishing the English language.

    FundersFunder number
    Johns Hopkins Children's Center
    Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen
    National Natural Science Foundation of China31500399
    Natural Science Foundation of Chongqingcstc2014jcyjA80016


      • Biomass accumulation
      • Biomass allocation
      • Competition
      • Deep-rooted plant
      • Drought
      • Limestone
      • Root growth
      • Shallow-rooted plant
      • Soil heterogeneity


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