Biome boundary maintained by intense belowground resource competition in world’s thinnest-rooted plant community

Mingzhen Lu, William J. Bond, Efrat Sheffer, Michael D. Cramer, Adam G. West, Nicky Allsopp, Edmund C. February, Samson Chimphango, Zeqing Ma, Jasper A. Slingsby, Lars O. Hedin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Recent findings point to plant root traits as potentially important for shaping the boundaries of biomes and for maintaining the plant communities within. We examined two hypotheses: 1) Thin-rooted plant strategies might be favored in biomes with low soil resources; and 2) these strategies may act, along with fire, to maintain the sharp boundary between the Fynbos and Afrotemperate Forest biomes in South Africa. These biomes differ in biodiversity, plant traits, and physiognomy, yet exist as alternative stable states on the same geological substrate and in the same climate conditions. We conducted a 4-y field experiment to examine the ability of Forest species to invade the Fynbos as a function of growth-limiting nutrients and belowground plant–plant competition. Our results support both hypotheses: First, we found marked biome differences in root traits, with Fynbos species exhibiting the thinnest roots reported from any biome worldwide. Second, our field manipulation demonstrated that intense belowground competition inhibits the ability of Forest species to invade Fynbos. Nitrogen was unexpectedly the resource that determined competitive outcome, despite the long-standing expectation that Fynbos is severely phosphorus constrained. These findings identify a trait-by-resource feedback mechanism, in which most species possess adaptive traits that modify soil resources in favor of their own survival while deterring invading species. Our findings challenge the long-held notion that biome boundaries depend primarily on external abiotic constraints and, instead, identify an internal biotic mechanism—a selective feedback among traits, plant–plant competition, and ecosystem conditions—that, along with contrasting fire regime, can act to maintain biome boundaries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2117514119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number9
StatePublished - Mar 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Biome boundary
  • Nitrogen
  • Resource competition
  • Root traits
  • Trait-by-resource feedback


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