Impacts of Arctic Shrubs on Root Traits and Belowground Nutrient Cycles Across a Northern Alaskan Climate Gradient

Weile Chen, Ken D Tape, Eugénie S Euskirchen, Shuang Liang, Adriano Matos, Jonathan Greenberg, Jennifer M Fraterrigo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Deciduous shrubs are expanding across the graminoid-dominated nutrient-poor arctic tundra. Absorptive root traits of shrubs are key determinants of nutrient acquisition strategy from tundra soils, but the variations of shrub root traits within and among common shrub genera across the arctic climatic gradient are not well resolved. Consequently, the impacts of arctic shrub expansion on belowground nutrient cycling remain largely unclear. Here, we collected roots from 170 plots of three commonly distributed shrub genera (Alnus, Betula, and Salix) and a widespread sedge (Eriophorum vaginatum) along a climatic gradient in northern Alaska. Absorptive root traits that are relevant to the strategy of plant nutrient acquisition were determined. The influence of aboveground dominant vegetation cover on the standing root biomass, root productivity, vertical rooting profile, as well as the soil nitrogen (N) pool in the active soil layer was examined. We found consistent root trait variation among arctic plant genera along the sampling transect. Alnus and Betula had relatively thicker and less branched, but more frequently ectomycorrhizal colonized absorptive roots than Salix, suggesting complementarity between root efficiency and ectomycorrhizal dependence among the co-existing shrubs. Shrub-dominated plots tended to have more productive absorptive roots than sedge-dominated plots. At the northern sites, deep absorptive roots (>20 cm depth) were more frequent in birch-dominated plots. We also found shrub roots extensively proliferated into the adjacent sedge-dominated plots. The soil N pool in the active layer generally decreased from south to north but did not vary among plots dominated by different shrub or sedge genera. Our results reveal diverse nutrient acquisition strategies and belowground impacts among different arctic shrubs, suggesting that further identifying the specific shrub genera in the tundra landscape will ultimately provide better predictions of belowground dynamics across the changing arctic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number588098
Pages (from-to)588098
JournalFrontiers in Plant Science
StatePublished - Dec 11 2020


  • arctic shrub expansion
  • ectomycorrhizal fungi
  • plant-soil interactions
  • root economics spectrum
  • rooting depth
  • soil nitrogen
  • trait-based approach

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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