Root depth distribution and the diversity-productivity relationship in a long-term grassland experiment

Kevin E. Mueller, David Tilman, Dario A. Fornara, Sarah E. Hobbie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

225 Scopus citations


The relationship between plant diversity and productivity in grasslands could depend, partly, on how diversity affects vertical distributions of root biomass in soil; yet, no prior study has evaluated the links among diversity, root depth distributions, and productivity in a long-term experiment. We used data from a 12-year experiment to ask how plant species richness and composition influenced both observed and expected root depth distributions of plant communities. Expected root depth distributions were based on the abundance of species in each community and two traits of species that were measured in monocultures: root depth distributions and root-to-shoot ratios. The observed proportion of deep-root biomass increased more than expected with species richness and was positively correlated with aboveground productivity. Indeed, the proportion of deep-root biomass explained variation in productivity even after accounting for legume presence/abundance and greater nitrogen availability in diverse plots. Diverse plots had root depth distributions that were twice as deep as expected from their species composition and corresponding monoculture traits, partly due to interactions between C4 grasses and legumes. These results suggest that the productivity of diverse plant communities was partly dependent on belowground plant interactions that caused roots to be distributed more deeply in soil.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)787-793
Number of pages7
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2013


  • Aboveground biomass
  • C4 grass
  • Complementarity
  • Interspecific interactions
  • Legume
  • Root biomass
  • Species richness


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