A new study which was led by the University of Wyoming sheds light on the relationship of ecological trade-offs, as well as challenges the nature of this relationship.

Daniel Laughlin, an associate professor in the UW Department of Botany and director of the Global Vegetation Project, led the study, which included researchers from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, Germany; Leipzig University; and Wageningen University & Research in Wageningen, Netherlands.

Laughlin is the lead author of a paper,  which is titled “Root Traits Explain Plant Species Distributions Along Climatic Gradients, Yet Challenge the Nature of Ecological Trade-Offs,” which was published today (June 10) in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Plant roots generally remain hidden below the ground, but their role for the distribution of plants should not be underestimated. Roots are essential for water and nutrient uptake, yet little is known about the influence of root traits on species distribution.

To investigate this relationship, an international team of researchers analyzed the root trait database, GRooT, and the vegetation database, known as sPlot.

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Researchers analyzed several plant root traits, which included the specific root length and root diameter, as well as the root tissue density and root nitrogen content.

These root traits were then compared to the environmental conditions under which these plants occur. Researchers found that, in forests, species with relatively thick fine roots and high root tissue density were more likely to occur in warm climates, while species with more delicate and long fine roots and low root tissue density were found more often in cold climates - a classic trade-off.

By contrast, forest species with large-diameter roots and high root tissue density were more commonly associated with dry climates, but species with the opposite trait values were not associated with wet climates. Instead, a diversity of root traits occurred in warm or wet climates.

The research was funded by the German Research Foundation.

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