Plant Ecology

, Volume 218, Issue 4, pp 385–394 | Cite as

Aridity increases below-ground niche breadth in grass communities

  • Bradley J. Butterfield
  • John B. Bradford
  • Seth M. Munson
  • Jennifer R. Gremer


Aridity is an important environmental filter in the assembly of plant communities worldwide. The extent to which root traits mediate responses to aridity, and how they are coordinated with leaf traits, remains unclear. Here, we measured variation in root tissue density (RTD), specific root length (SRL), specific leaf area (SLA), and seed size within and among thirty perennial grass communities distributed along an aridity gradient spanning 190–540 mm of climatic water deficit (potential minus actual evapotranspiration). We tested the hypotheses that traits exhibited coordinated variation (1) among species, as well as (2) among communities varying in aridity, and (3) functional diversity within communities declines with increasing aridity, consistent with the “stress-dominance” hypothesis. Across communities, SLA and RTD exhibited a coordinated response to aridity, shifting toward more conservative (lower SLA, higher RTD) functional strategies with increasing aridity. The response of SRL to aridity was more idiosyncratic and was independent of variation in SLA and RTD. Contrary to the stress-dominance hypothesis, the diversity of SRL values within communities increased with aridity, while none of the other traits exhibited significant diversity responses. These results are consistent with other studies that have found SRL to be independent of an SLA–RTD axis of functional variation and suggest that the dynamic nature of soil moisture in arid environments may facilitate a wider array of resource capture strategies associated with variation in SRL.


Functional trait Community assembly Grassland Root traits Niche breadth 



We thank Kaitlyn Toledo, Jonathan Paklaian, and Kyle Doherty for assistance with field work; and Julie Wachara, Austin Rueda, and Kelsey Blodgett for assistance with lab work. This research was supported in part by the US Geological Survey Ecosystems Mission Area. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bradley J. Butterfield
    • 1
  • John B. Bradford
    • 1
    • 2
  • Seth M. Munson
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jennifer R. Gremer
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Biological Sciences and Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental ResearchNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Geological Survey, Southwest Biological Science CenterFlagstaffUSA
  3. 3.Department of Evolution and EcologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

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