The effects of clipping and soil moisture on leaf and root morphology and root respiration in two temperate and two tropical grasses

Michele A. Thorne, Douglas A. Frank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Numerous studies have explored the effect of environmental conditions on a number of plant physiological and structural traits, such as photosynthetic rate, shoot versus root biomass allocation, and leaf and root morphology. In contrast, there have been a few investigations of how those conditions may influence root respiration, even though this flux can represent a major component of carbon (C) pathway in plants. In this study, we examined the response of mass-specific root respiration (μmol CO2 g -1 s-1), shoot and root biomass, and leaf photosynthesis to clipping and variable soil moisture in two C3 (Festuca idahoensis Elmer., Poa pratensis L.) and two C4 (Andropogon greenwayi Napper, and Sporobolus kentrophyllus K. Schum.) grass species. The C3 and C4 grasses were collected in Yellowstone National Park, USA and the Serengeti ecosystem, Africa, respectively, where they evolved under temporally variable soil moisture conditions and were exposed to frequent, often intense grazing. We also measured the influence of clipping and soil moisture on specific leaf area (SLA), a trait associated with moisture conservation, and specific root length (SRL), a trait associated with efficiency per unit mass of soil resource uptake. Clipping did not influence any plant trait, with the exception that it reduced the root to shoot ratio (R:S) and increased SRL in P. pratensis. In contrast to the null effect of clipping on specific root respiration, reduced soil moisture lowered specific root respiration in all four species. In addition, species differed in how leaf and root structural traits responded to lower available soil moisture. P. pratensis and A. greenwayi increased SLA, by 23% and 33%, respectively, and did not alter SRL. Conversely, S. kentrophyllus increased SRL by 42% and did not alter SLA. F. idahoensis responded to lower available soil moisture by increasing both SLA and SRL by 38% and 33%, respectively. These responses were species-specific strategies that did not coincide with photosynthetic pathway (C3/C4) or growth form. Thus, mass-specific root respiration responded uniformly among these four grass species to clipping (no effect) and increased soil moisture stress (decline), whereas the responses of other traits (i.e., R:S ratio, SLA, SRL) to the treatments, especially moisture availability, were species-specific. Consequently, the effects of either clipping or variation in soil moisture on the C budget of these four different grasses species were driven primarily by the plasticity of R:S ratios and the structural leaf and root traits of individual species, rather than variation in the response of mass-specific root respiration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)205-215
Number of pages11
JournalPlant Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2009


  • Carbon allocation
  • Herbivory
  • Root metabolism
  • Specific root length

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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