Fine-scale belowground species associations in temperate grassland

Douglas A. Frank, Alyssa W. Pontes, Eleanor M. Maine, Jason D. Fridley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Evaluating how belowground processes contribute to plant community dynamics is hampered by limited information on the spatial structure of root communities at the scale that plants interact belowground. In this study, roots were mapped to the nearest one mm and molecularly identified by species on vertical (0-15 cm deep) surfaces of soil blocks excavated from dry and mesic grasslands in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) to examine the spatial relationships among species at the scale that roots interact. Our results indicated that average interspecific root - root distances for the majority of species were within a distance (3 mm) that roots have been shown to compete for resources. Most species placed their roots at random, although low root numbers for many species probably led to overestimating the occurrence of random patterns. According to theory, we expected that most of the remaining species would segregate their root systems to avoid competition. Instead we found that more species aggregated than segregated from others. Based on previous investigations, we hypothesize that species aggregate to increase uptake of water, nitrogen and/or phosphorus made available by neighbouring roots, or as a consequence of a reduction in the pathogenicity of soil biota growing in multispecies mixtures. Our results indicate that YNP grassland root communities are organized as closely interdigitating networks of species that potentially can support strong interactions among many species combinations. Future root research should address the prevalence and functional consequences of species aggregation across plant communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3206-3216
Number of pages11
JournalMolecular ecology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015


  • Yellowstone National Park
  • grassland
  • roots
  • species coexistence
  • trnL

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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