Effects of plant species richness on stand structure and productivity

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Aboveground biomass production commonly increases with species richness in plant biodiversity experiments. Little is known about the direct mechanisms that cause this result. We tested if by occupying different heights and depths above and below ground, and by optimizing the vertical distribution of leaf nitrogen, species in mixtures can contribute to increased resource uptake and, thus, increased productivity of the community in comparison with monocultures.


We grew 24 grassland plant species, grouped into four nonoverlapping species pools, in monoculture and 3- and 6-species mixture in spatially heterogeneous and uniform soil nutrient conditions. Layered harvests of above- and belowground biomass, as well as leaf nitrogen and light measurements, were taken to assess vertical canopy and root space structure.

Important Findings

The distribution of leaf mass was shifted toward greater heights and light absorption was correspondingly enhanced in mixtures. However, only some mixtures had leaf nitrogen concentration profiles predicted to optimize whole-community carbon gain, whereas in other mixtures species seemed to behave more ‘selfish’. Nevertheless, even in these communities, biomass production increased with species richness. The distribution of root biomass below ground did not change from monocultures to three- and six-species mixtures and there was also no indication that mixtures were better than monocultures at extracting heterogeneously as compared to homogeneously distributed soil resources. We conclude that positive biodiversity effect on aboveground biomass production cannot easily be explained by a single or few common mechanisms of differential space use. Rather, it seems that mechanisms vary with the particular set of species combined in a community.

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