Climate, soil and plant functional types as drivers of global fine-root trait variation

Grégoire T. Freschet, Oscar J. Valverde-Barrantes, Caroline M. Tucker, Joseph M. Craine, M. Luke Mccormack, Cyrille Violle, Florian Fort, Christopher B. Blackwood, Katherine R. Urban-Mead, Colleen M. Iversen, Anne Bonis, Louise H. Comas, Johannes H.C. Cornelissen, Ming Dong, Dali Guo, Sarah E. Hobbie, Robert J. Holdaway, Steven W. Kembel, Naoki Makita, Vladimir G. OnipchenkoCatherine Picon-Cochard, Peter B. Reich, Enrique G. de la Riva, Stuart W. Smith, Nadejda A. Soudzilovskaia, Mark G. Tjoelker, David A. Wardle, Catherine Roumet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

203 Scopus citations


Ecosystem functioning relies heavily on below-ground processes, which are largely regulated by plant fine-roots and their functional traits. However, our knowledge of fine-root trait distribution relies to date on local- and regional-scale studies with limited numbers of species, growth forms and environmental variation. We compiled a world-wide fine-root trait dataset, featuring 1115 species from contrasting climatic areas, phylogeny and growth forms to test a series of hypotheses pertaining to the influence of plant functional types, soil and climate variables, and the degree of manipulation of plant growing conditions on species fine-root trait variation. Most particularly, we tested the competing hypotheses that fine-root traits typical of faster return on investment would be most strongly associated with conditions of limiting versus favourable soil resource availability. We accounted for both data source and species phylogenetic relatedness. We demonstrate that: (i) Climate conditions promoting soil fertility relate negatively to fine-root traits favouring fast soil resource acquisition, with a particularly strong positive effect of temperature on fine-root diameter and negative effect on specific root length (SRL), and a negative effect of rainfall on root nitrogen concentration; (ii) Soil bulk density strongly influences species fine-root morphology, by favouring thicker, denser fine-roots; (iii) Fine-roots from herbaceous species are on average finer and have higher SRL than those of woody species, and N2-fixing capacity positively relates to root nitrogen; and (iv) Plants growing in pots have higher SRL than those grown in the field. Synthesis. This study reveals both the large variation in fine-root traits encountered globally and the relevance of several key plant functional types and soil and climate variables for explaining a substantial part of this variation. Climate, particularly temperature, and plant functional types were the two strongest predictors of fine-root trait variation. High trait variation occurred at local scales, suggesting that wide-ranging below-ground resource economics strategies are viable within most climatic areas and soil conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1182-1196
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank J.C. Cahill and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive assessment of our work. C.M.T. was supported by EU's Research Executive Agency for funding through Marie Curie Actions (657951). C.V. was supported by the European Research Council Starting Grant Project ‘Ecophysiological and biophysical constraints on domestication in crop plants’ (ERC-StG-2014-639706-CONSTRAINTS). C.M.I. was supported by the Biological and Environmental Research program in the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. V.G.O. was supported by grant 14-50-00029 from the Russian Science Foundation (RNF).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Authors. Journal of Ecology © 2017 British Ecological Society


  • N-fixation
  • climate
  • database
  • fine roots
  • functional biogeography
  • functional traits
  • phylogeny
  • plant growth form
  • plant resource economics
  • soil properties


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