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Oecologia. 2003 Aug;136(3):424-30. Epub 2003 May 15.

Contribution of relative growth rate to root foraging by annual and perennial grasses from California oak woodlands.

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  • 1Land, Air and Water Resources Department, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


Plants forage for nutrients by increasing their root length density (RLD) in nutrient-rich soil microsites through root morphological changes resulting in increased root biomass density (RBD), specific root length (SRL), or branching frequency (BF). It is commonly accepted that fast-growing species will forage more than slow-growing species. However, foraging responses may be due solely to differences in relative growth rates (RGR). There is little evidence, after the effects of RGR are removed, that the fast versus slow foraging theory is correct. In a pot study, we evaluated foraging of four grass species that differed in RGR: one fast-growing annual species, Bromus diandrus, two intermediate-growing species, annual Bromus hordeaceus and perennial Elymus glaucus, and one slow-growing perennial species, Nassella pulchra. We harvested plants either at a common time (plants varied in size) or at a common leaf number (plants similar size, surrogate for common biomass). By evaluating species at a common time, RGR influenced foraging. Conversely, by evaluating species at a common leaf number, foraging could be evaluated independent of RGR. When RGR was allowed to contribute to foraging (common time harvest), foraging and RGR were positively correlated. B. diandrus (fast RGR) foraged to a greater extent than did E. glaucus (intermediate RGR) and N. pulchra (slow RGR). E. glaucus (intermediate RGR) foraged to a greater extent than N. pulchra (slow RGR). Root growth within nutrient-rich microsites was due to significant increases in RBD, not to modifications of SRL or BF. However, when RGR was not allowed to influence foraging (common leaf number harvest), none of the four species significantly enhanced RLD in nutrient-rich compared to control microsites. This suggests that RGR strongly influenced the ability of these grass species to forage and also supports the need to evaluate plastic root traits independent of RGR.

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