15N-nitrate-labelling demonstrates a size symmetric competitive effect on belowground resource uptake

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Strong hints exist that belowground competition is generally size-symmetric. While this has frequently been shown by use of integrative indicators like growth or biomass, resource-focussed approaches are still lacking, especially those investigating the competitive effect. Here, we present a correlation between neighbour plants' root sizes and their competitive effect on their target plants' nitrate uptake. This was derived from a controlled field experiment where intra- and interspecific combinations of five different herbaceous species from nutrient poor sand ecosystems were examined in an additive design. Short-term pulses of 15N-labelled nitrate were applied between competing pairs of plant individuals. The sizes of neighbour root systems had high explanatory power for the competitive effect on target plants' nitrate uptake. Equally important, a curve fitting approach revealed that the competitive effect based on 15N-uptake matched predictions of a size-symmetric interaction. With 66% of the variation in competitive effect on nitrate uptake explained by root system size, the degree to which root size results in a belowground overlap of zones of influence is crucial. Within this overlap, further attributes like architecture or uptake capacity may be important. Our data represent experimental support for a size symmetric competitive effect for a specific belowground resource. Since this is not consistent with an overproportional size advantage when mobile soil resources are limiting, it suggests that the survival of small individuals or species should be facilitated by the symmetric nature of belowground competitive effects.

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