Plants respond to environmental heterogeneity, particularly below ground, where spectacular root proliferations in nutrient-rich patches may occur. Such 'foraging' responses apparently maximize nutrient uptake and are now prominent in plant ecological theory. Proliferations in nitrogen-rich patches are difficult to explain adaptively, however. The high mobility of soil nitrate should limit the contribution of proliferation to N capture. Many experiments on isolated plants show only a weak relation between proliferation and N uptake. We show that N capture is associated strongly with proliferation during interspecific competition for finite, locally available, mixed N sources, precisely the conditions under which N becomes available to plants on generally infertile soils. This explains why N-induced root proliferation is an important resource-capture mechanism in N-limited plant communities and suggests that increasing proliferation by crop breeding or genetic manipulation will have a limited impact on N capture by well-fertilized monocultures
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