Root traits vary as much as leaf traits and have consistent phenotypic plasticity among 14 populations of a globally widespread herb

Wayne Dawson, Judit Bòdis, Anna Bucharova, Jane A. Catford, Richard P. Duncan, Lauchlan Fraser, Ronny Groenteman, Ruth Kelly, Joslin L. Moore, Meelis Pärtel, Deborah Roach, Jesus Villellas, Elizabeth M. Wandrag, Alain Finn, Yvonne M. Buckley

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Our understanding of plant functional trait variation among populations and how this relates to local adaptation to environmental conditions is largely shaped by above-ground traits. However, we might expect below-ground traits linked to resource acquisition and conservation to vary among populations that experience different environmental conditions. Alternatively, below-ground traits might be highly plastic in response to growing conditions, such as availability of soil resources and association with symbiont arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). We assessed (i) the strength of among-population variation in above- and below-ground traits, (ii) the effects of growing conditions on among-population variation and (iii) whether variation among populations is linked to source environment conditions, in a globally distributed perennial Plantago lanceolata. Using seeds from 14 populations across three continents, we grew plants in a common garden experiment and measured leaf and root traits linked to resource acquisition and water conservation. We included two sets of experimental treatments (high or low water availability; with and without AMF inoculation), which enabled us to assess trait responses to growing conditions. Across treatments, the percentage of root trait variation explained by populations and continents was 9%–26%, compared to 7%–20% for leaf trait variation. From principal component analysis (PCA), the first PC axis for both root and leaf traits largely reflected plant size, while the second PC broadly captured mass allocation. Root mass allocation (PC 2) was related to mean annual temperature and mean moisture index, indicating that populations from cooler, wetter environments had longer, thinner roots. However, we found little support for a relationship between source environment and leaf trait PCs, root system size (PC1) or individual traits. Water availability and AMF inoculation effects on size were consistent among populations, with larger plants under AMF inoculation, and less mass allocation to leaves under lower water availability. Plantago lanceolata shows substantial population-level variation in a suite of root traits, but that variation is only partially linked to the source environmental variables studied. Despite considerable differences in source abiotic environments, geographically separated populations have retained a strong and similar capacity for phenotypic plasticity both above and below-ground. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)926-941
    Number of pages16
    JournalFunctional Ecology
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024


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