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Belowground plant parts are crucial for comprehensively estimating total plant richness in herbaceous and woody habitats

Träger, Sabrina, Öpik, Maarja, Vasar, Martti, Wilson, Scott D.
Ecology 2019 v.100 no.2 pp. e02575
Betula, alpine tundra, botanical composition, chloroplasts, forests, habitats, herbaceous plants, introns, phytomass, plant anatomy, sequence analysis, species identification, species richness, surveys, vegetation gradient
Most studies consider aboveground plant species richness as a representative biodiversity measure. This approach inevitably assumes that the partitioning of total plant species richness into above‐ and belowground components is constant or at least consistent within and across vegetation types. However, with studies considering belowground plant richness still scarce and completely absent along vegetation gradients, this assumption lacks experimental support. Novel DNA sequencing techniques allow economical, high‐throughput species identification of belowground environmental samples, enabling the measurement of the contributions of both above‐ and belowground plant components to total plant richness. We investigated above‐ and belowground plant species richness in four vegetation types (birch forest, heath, low alpine tundra, high alpine tundra) at the scale of herbaceous plant neighborhoods (dm) using 454 sequencing of the chloroplast trnL (UAA) intron to determine the plant species richness of environmental root samples and combined it with aboveground data from vegetation surveys to obtain total plant species richness. We correlated the measured plant species richness components with each other and with their respective plant biomass components within and across vegetation types. Total plant species richness exceeded aboveground richness twice on average and by as much as three times in low alpine tundra, indicating that a significant fraction of belowground plant richness cannot be recorded aboveground. More importantly, no consistent relationship among richness components (above‐ and belowground) was found within or across vegetation types, indicating that aboveground richness alone cannot predict total plant richness in contrasting vegetation types. Finally, no consistent relationship between plant richness and the corresponding biomass component was found. Our results clearly show that aboveground plant richness alone is a poor estimator of total plant species richness within and across different vegetation types. Consequently, it is crucial to account for belowground plant richness in future plant ecological studies in order to validate currently accepted plant richness patterns, as well as to measure potential changes in plant community composition in a changing environment.