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Title: Trade‐offs in above‐ and below‐ground biomass allocation influencing seedling growth in a tropical forest

Plants allocate biomass to different organs in response to resource variation for maximizing performance, yet we lack a framework that adequately integrates plant responses to the simultaneous variation in above‐ and below‐ground resources. Although traditionally, the optimal partition theory (OPT) has explained patterns of biomass allocation in response to a single limiting resource, it is well‐known that in natural communities multiple resources limit growth. We study trade‐offs involved in plant biomass allocation patterns and their effects on plant growth under variable below‐ and above‐ground resources—light, soil N and P—for seedling communities.

We collected information on leaf, stem and root mass fractions for more than 1,900 seedlings of 97 species paired with growth data and local‐scale variation in abiotic resources from a tropical forest in China.

We identified two trade‐off axes that define the mass allocation strategies for seedlings—allocation to photosynthetic versus non‐photosynthetic tissues and allocation to roots over stems—that responded to the variation in soil P and N and light. Yet, the allocation patterns did not always follow predictions of OPT in which plants should allocate biomass to the organ that acquires the most limiting resource. Limited soil N resulted in high allocation to leaves at the expense of non‐photosynthetic tissues, while the opposite trend was found in response to limited soil P. Also, co‐limitation in above‐ and below‐ground resources (light and soil P) led to mass allocation to stems at the expense of roots. Finally, we found that growth increased under high‐light availability and soil P for seedlings that invested more in photosynthetic over non‐photosynthetic tissues or/and that allocated mass to roots at the expense of stem.

Synthesis. Biomass allocation patterns to above‐ and below‐ground tissues are described by two independent trade‐offs that allow plants to have divergent allocation strategies (e.g. high root allocation at the expense of stem or high leaf allocation at the expense of allocation to non‐photosynthetic tissues) and enhance growth under different limiting resources. Identifying the trade‐offs driving biomass allocation is important to disentangle plant responses to the simultaneous variation in resources in diverse forest communities.

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Journal Name:
Journal of Ecology
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 1184-1193
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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