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The global biogeography of roots

Schenk HJ, RB Jackson
Ecological Monographs
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Studies in global plant biogeography have almost exclusively analyzed relationships of abiotic and biotic factors with the distribution and structure of vegetation aboveground. The goal of this study was to extend such analyses to the belowground structure of vegetation by determining the biotic and abiotic factors that influence vertical root distributions in the soil, including soil, climate, and plant properties. The analysis used a database of vertical root profiles from the literature with 475 profiles from 209 geographic locations. Since most profiles were not sampled to the maximum rooting depth, several techniques were used to estimate the amount of roots at greater depths, to a maximum of 3 m in some systems. The accuracy of extrapolations was tested using a subset of deeply (>2 m) sampled or completely sampled profiles. Vertical root distributions for each profile were characterized by the interpolated 50% and 95% rooting depths (the depths above which 50% or 95% of all roots were located).

General linear models incorporating plant life-form dominance, climate, and soil variables explained as much as 50% of the variance in rooting depths for various biomes and life forms. Annual potential evapotranspiration (PET) and precipitation together accounted for the largest proportion of the variance (12 to 16% globally and 38% in some systems). Mean 95% rooting depths increased with decreasing latitude from 80° to 30° but showed no clear trend in the tropics. Annual PET, annual precipitation, and length of the warm season were all positively correlated with rooting depths. Rooting depths in tropical vegetation were only weakly correlated with climatic variables but were strongly correlated with sampling depths, suggesting that even after extrapolation, sampling depths there were often insufficient to characterize root profiles. Globally, more than 90% of all profiles had at least 50% of all roots in the upper 0.3 m of the soil profile (incl. organic horizons) and 95% of all roots in the upper 2 m. Deeper rooting depths were mainly found in water-limited ecosystems. Deeper 95% rooting depths were also found for shrublands compared to grasslands, in sandy soils versus clay or loam soils, and in systems with relatively shallow organic horizons compared with deeper organic horizons.

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