A generic individual-based model to simulate morphogenesis, C-N acquisition and population dynamics in contrasting forage legumes.

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Background and Aims

Individual-based models (IBMs) are promising tools to disentangle plant interactions in multi-species grasslands and foster innovative species mixtures. This study describes an IBM dealing with the morphogenesis, growth and C-N acquisition of forage legumes that integrates plastic responses from functional-structural plant models.


A generic model was developed to account for herbaceous legume species with contrasting above- and below-ground morphogenetic syndromes and to integrate the responses of plants to light, water and N. Through coupling with a radiative transfer model and a three-dimensional virtual soil, the model allows dynamic resolution of competition for multiple resources at individual plant level within a plant community. The behaviour of the model was assessed on a range of monospecific stands grown along gradients of light, water and N availability.

Key Results

The model proved able to capture the diversity of morphologies encountered among the forage legumes. The main density-dependent features known about even-age plant populations were correctly anticipated. The model predicted (1) the 'reciprocal yield' law relating average plant mass to density, (2) a self-thinning pattern close to that measured for herbaceous species and (3) consistent changes in the size structure of plant populations with time and pedo-climatic conditions. In addition, plastic changes in the partitioning of dry matter, the N acquisition mode and in the architecture of shoots and roots emerged from the integration of plant responses to their local environment. This resulted in taller plants and thinner roots when competition was dominated by light, and shorter plants with relatively more developed root systems when competition was dominated by soil resources.


A population dynamic model considering growth and morphogenesis responses to multiple resources heterogeneously distributed in the environment was presented. It should allow scaling plant-plant interactions from individual to community levels without the inconvenience of average plant models.

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