Root plasticity of native and invasive Great Basin species in response to soil nitrogen heterogeneity

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Soil nutrients are heterogeneously distributed in natural systems. While many species respond to this heterogeneity through root system plasticity, little is known about how the magnitude of these responses may vary between native and invasive species. We quantified root morphological and physiological plasticity of co-occurring native and invasive Great Basin species in response to soil nitrogen heterogeneity and determined if trade-offs exist between these foraging responses and species relative growth rate or root system biomass. The nine study species included three perennial bunchgrasses, three perennial forbs, and three invasive perennial forbs. The plants were grown in large pots outdoors. Once a week for 4 weeks equal amounts of 15NH415NO3 were distributed in the soil either evenly through the soil profile, in four patches, or in two patches. All species acquired more N in patches compared to when N was applied evenly through the soil profile. None of the species increased root length density in enriched patches compared to control patches but all species increased root N uptake rate in enriched patches. There was a positive relationship between N uptake rate, relative growth rate, and root system biomass. Path analysis indicated that these positive interrelationships among traits could provide one explanation of how invasive forbs were able to capture 2 and 15-fold more N from enriched patches compared to the native grasses and forbs, respectively. Results from this pot study suggest that plant traits related to nutrient capture in heterogeneous soil environments may be positively correlated which could potentially promote size-asymmetric competition belowground and facilitate the spread of invasive species. However, field experiments with plants in different neighbor environments ultimately are needed to determine if these positive relationships among traits influence competitive ability and invader success.

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