Morphological variability in tree root architecture indirectly affects coexistence among competitors in the understory

Erik T. Aschehoug, Ragan M. Callaway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Interactions between plants can have strong effects on community structure and function. Variability in the morphological, developmental, physiological, and biochemical traits of plants can influence the outcome of plant interactions and thus have important ecological consequences. However, the ecological ramifications of trait variability in plants are poorly understood and have rarely been tested in the field. We experimentally tested the effects of morphological variation in root architecture of Quercus douglasii trees in the field on interactions between understory plants and community composition. Our results indicate that variability among Q. douglasii tree root systems initiates a striking reversal in the competitive effects of dominant understory grass species on a less common species. Trees with a deeprooted morphology facilitated exotic annual grasses and these annual grasses, in turn, competitively excluded the native perennial bunchgrass, Stipa pulchra. In contrast, Q. douglasii trees with shallow-rooted morphologies directly suppressed the growth of exotic annual grasses and indirectly released S. pulchra individuals from competition with these annual grasses. Morphological variation in the root architecture of Q. douglasii created substantial conditionality in the outcomes of competition among species which enhanced the potential for indirect interactions to sustain coexistence and increase community diversity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1731-1736
Number of pages6
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2014


  • Blue Oak
  • Community Assembly
  • Competition
  • Facilitation
  • Quercus Douglasii
  • Stipa Pulchra
  • Trait-Mediated Indirect Interactions


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