Luxury consumption of soil nutrients: a possible competitive strategy in above-ground and below-ground biomass allocation and root morphology for slow-growing arctic vegetation?
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1 A field-experiment was used to determine how plant species might retain dominance in an arctic ecosystem receiving added nutrients. We both measured and modelled the above-ground and below-ground biomass allocation and root morphology of non-acidic tussock tundra near Toolik Lake, Alaska, after 4 years of fertilization with nitrogen and phosphorus. 2 Compared with control plots, the fertilized plots showed significant increases in overall root weight ratio, and root biomass, root length and root nitrogen concentration in the upper soil layers. There was a strong trend towards relatively more biomass below ground. 3 We constructed an individual teleonomic (i.e. optimality) plant allocation and growth model, and a competition model in which two plants grow and compete for the limiting resources. 4 The individual plant model predicted a strong decrease in root weight ratio with increased nutrient availability, contrary to the results obtained in the field. 5 The increased investment in roots in the fertilized plots found in the field could be explained in the competition model in terms of luxury consumption of nutrients (i.e. the absorbance of nutrients in excess of the immediate plant growth requirements). For slow-growing species with relatively low phenological and physiological plasticity it can be advantageous to increase relative investment into root growth and root activity. This increased investment can limit nutrient availability to other fast-growing species and, thereby, preclude the successful invasion of these species. 6 These results have implications for the transient response of communities and ecosystems to global change.