Variation in root system traits among African semi-arid savanna grasses: implications for drought tolerance

TitleVariation in root system traits among African semi-arid savanna grasses: implications for drought tolerance
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsHartnett, DC, Ott, JP, Wilson, GT, Setshogo, M
JournalAustral Ecology
Pagination383 -392
Accession NumberKNZ001548
Keywordsgrass, mycorrhiza, rhizosheath, root architecture, savanna

In arid to semi-arid grasslands and savannas, plant growth, population dynamics, and productivity are consistently and strongly limited by soil water and nutrient availability. Adaptive traits of the root systems of grasses in these ecosystems are crucial to their ability to cope with strong water and/or nutrient limitation and the increasing drought stress associated with ecosystem degradation or projected climate change. We studied 18 grass species in semi-arid savanna of the Kalahari region of Botswana to quantify interspecific variation in three important root system traits including root system architecture, rhizosheath thickness and mycorrhizal colonization. Drought-tolerant species and shorter-lived species showed greater rhizosheath thickness and fine root development but lower mycorrhizal colonization compared to later successional climax grasses and those characteristic of wetter sites. In addition, there was a significant positive correlation between root fibrousness index and rhizosheath thickness among species and a weak negative correlation between root fibrousness index and mycorrhizal colonization. These patterns suggest that an extensive fine root system and rhizosheath development may be important complementary traits of grasses coping with drought conditions, the former aiding in the acquisition of water by the grass plant and the latter aiding in water uptake and retention, and reducing water loss in the rhizosphere. Within species, both rhizosheath development and mycorrhizal colonization were significantly greater in a wet year than in a year with below-average precipitation. The observed patterns suggest that the primary benefit of rhizosheath development in African savanna grasses is improved drought tolerance and that it is a plastic trait that can be adjusted annually to changing environmental conditions. The functioning of mycorrhizal symbiosis is likely to be relatively more important in infertile savannas where nutrient limitation is higher relative to water limitation.