Fishing for nutrients in heterogeneous landscapes: modelling plant growth trade-offs in monocultures and mixed communities

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The problem of how best to find and exploit essential resources, the quality and locations of which are unknown, is common throughout biology. For plants, the need to grow an efficient root system so as to acquire patchily distributed soil nutrients is typically complicated by competition between plants, and by the costs of maintaining the root system. Simple mechanistic models for root growth can help elucidate these complications, and here we argue that these models can be usefully informed by models initially developed for foraging fish larvae. Both plant and fish need to efficiently search a spatio-temporally variable environment using simple algorithms involving only local information, and both must perform this task against a backdrop of intra- and inter-specific competition and background mortality. Here we develop these parallels by using simple stochastic models describing the growth and efficiency of four contrasting idealized root growth strategies. We show that plants which grow identically in isolation in homogeneous
substrates will typically perform very differently when grown in monocultures, in heterogeneous nutrient landscapes and in mixed-species competition. In particular, our simulations show a consistent result that plants which trade-off rapid growth in favour of a more efficient and durable root system perform better, both on average and in terms of the best performing individuals, than more rapidly growing ephemeral root systems. Moreover, when such slower growing but more efficient plants are grown in competition, the overall community productivity can exceed that of the constituent monocultures. These findings help to disentangle many of the context-dependent behaviours seen in the experimental literature, and may form a basis for future studies at the level of complex population dynamics
and life history evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberAoB PLANTS 7: plv109
Number of pages13
JournalAoB Plants
Early online date14 Sept 2015
Publication statusPublished - 10 Nov 2015

Bibliographical note

© 2015, The Authors. This content is made available by the publisher under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence. This means that a user may copy, distribute and display the resource providing that they give credit. Users must adhere to the terms of the licence.


  • Complexity; individual-based simulation; patchy environment; productivity; recruitment; stochastic model.

Cite this