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Do belowground vertical niche differences between deep- and shallow-rooted species enhance resource uptake and drought resistance in grassland mixtures?

Abstract

Background and aims

We investigated whether spatial differences in belowground niches between shallow- and deep-rooted species result in increased resource uptake and drought resistance in agricultural grassland communities.

Material and methods

We injected the tracers 15N and rubidium (Rb) into the soil and measured tracer uptake from 5 and 35 cm soil depth in monocultures and mixtures containing shallow-rooted (Lolium perenne, non-legume; Trifolium repens, legume) and deep-rooted (Cichorium intybus, non-legume; Trifolium pratense, legume) species, grown under drought or control conditions.

Results

Deep-rooted species had a higher proportional uptake of both tracers from 35 cm soil depth than shallow-rooted species (p < 0.001). Under drought conditions, all species enhanced their proportional tracer uptake from the deeper soil layer (p < 0.004) and species with a high proportional 15N uptake from the deeper soil layer were more drought resistant. Total community uptake of Rb was significantly higher in mixed communities than monocultures (p < 0.007); however, this diversity effect was the result of mixing legumes with non-legumes and not the result of mixing deep- with shallow-rooted species.

Conclusions

Clear evidence for spatial niche differences in resource uptake between shallow- and deep-rooted species did not translate into increased resource uptake in mixtures. Resource uptake from deeper soil layers was found to contribute to adaptation and resistance to drought stress.

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Acknowledgments

N.J.H. was funded by the Irish Research Council, co-funded by Marie Curie Actions under FP7. The field experiment was supported by the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under the grant agreements FP7-244983 (MultiSward) and FP7-266018 (AnimalChange). The authors would like to thank Daniel Hofer, Cornel Stutz, Rafael Gago, Rita Lopez, Andreas Kundela, Diane Bürge and Johanna Keita for their assistance with field work and tracer analysis.

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Correspondence to N. J. Hoekstra.

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Hoekstra, N.J., Suter, M., Finn, J.A. et al. Do belowground vertical niche differences between deep- and shallow-rooted species enhance resource uptake and drought resistance in grassland mixtures?. Plant Soil 394, 21–34 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-014-2352-x

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Keywords

  • Drought
  • Cichorium intybus
  • Lolium perenne
  • Trifolium pratense
  • Trifolium repens
  • Diversity
  • Rubidium
  • 15N
  • Tracers