Tree species fine-root demography parallels habitat specialization across a sandhill soil resource gradient. Academic Article uri icon


  • Single species can substantially alter belowground processes in ecosystems via differential root production and death. However, information on species differences in fine-root demography is virtually absent for natural communities. In this field study, we recorded species-specific fine-root (<2 mm in diameter) demography in adults of four tree species (Pinus palustris, Quercus laevis, Q. incana, and Q. margaretta) that are distributed differentially along soil resource gradients in the fall-line sandhills of the southeastern United States. At a subxeric habitat where all four species co-occur, roots of individual trees of each species were isolated in rhizotrons and tracked individually for three years. Quercus species had similar fine-root morphology but differed substantially for fine-root demography and architecture. Quercus laevis and Q. incana, the species from xeric habitats, showed lower fine-root production, death, percentage mortality, turnover rates, and risk of death, and greater life span and mean root segment length (MRSL) than Q. margaretta, the species from subxeric habitats. Fine roots of P. palustris (a generalist) showed high production and intermediate mortality, turnover rate, longevity, and MRSL. Fine-root survival increased with root order (first to fourth in centripetal order), but the degree of change was species specific. Q. margaretta showed greater increases in survival with order, but all species had similar demography of third- and fourth-order roots. Mycorrhizal roots had greater longevity than non-mycorrhizal roots only in Q. laevis. Species differences were also seasonal. Although these Quercus species are leaf deciduous, some growth of fine roots occurred in Q. margaretta during the "leaf-dormant" season. In our narrow-scale species comparison, species differences in ecological distribution were consistent with the observed variation in fine-root demography and architecture with greater resolution than leaf characters or other root traits such as morphology. Our results also show that narrow-scale variation in fine-root demography (including intra-generic differences) can be as large as broad-scale variation across biomes and vegetation types. Hence, small shifts in community composition have the potential to produce substantial changes below ground.

published proceedings

  • Ecology

author list (cited authors)

  • Espeleta, J. F., West, J. B., & Donovan, L. A.

citation count

  • 55

complete list of authors

  • Espeleta, Javier F||West, Jason B||Donovan, Lisa A

publication date

  • July 2009