Negative plant-soil feedbacks increase with plant abundance, and are unchanged by competition

John L. Maron, Alyssa Laney Smith, Yvette K. Ortega, Dean E. Pearson, Ragan M. Callaway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Plant-soil feedbacks and interspecific competition are ubiquitous interactions that strongly influence the performance of plants. Yet few studies have examined whether the strength of these interactions corresponds with the abundance of plant species in the field, or whether feedbacks and competition interact in ways that either ameliorate or exacerbate their effects in isolation. We sampled soil from two intermountain grassland communities where we also measured the relative abundance of plant species. In greenhouse experiments, we quantified the direction and magnitude of plant-soil feedbacks for 10 target species that spanned a range of abundances in the field. In soil from both sites, plant-soil feedbacks were mostly negative, with more abundant species suffering greater negative feedbacks than rare species. In contrast, the average response to competition for each species was unrelated with its abundance in the field. We also determined how competitive response varied among our target species when plants competed in live vs. sterile soil. Interspecific competition reduced plant size, but the strength of this negative effect was unchanged by plant-soil feedbacks. Finally, when plants competed interspecifically, we asked how conspecific-trained, heterospecific-trained, and sterile soil influenced the competitive responses of our target species and how this varied depending on whether target species were abundant or rare in the field. Here, we found that both abundant and rare species were not as harmed by competition when they grew in heterospecific-trained soil compared to when they grew in conspecific-cultured soil. Abundant species were also not as harmed by competition when growing in sterile vs. conspecific-trained soil, but this was not the case for rare species. Our results suggest that abundant plants accrue species-specific soil pathogens to a greater extent than rare species. Thus, negative feedbacks may be critical for preventing abundant species from becoming even more abundant than rare species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2055-2063
Number of pages9
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • Coexistence
  • Interspecific competition
  • Plant abundance
  • Plant distribution
  • Plant-soil feedbacks
  • Species-specific effects


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