Phenotypic plasticity: A missing element in the theory of vegetation pattern formation

Jamie J.R. Bennett, Bidesh K. Bera, Michel Ferré, Hezi Yizhaq, Stephan Getzin, Ehud Meron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Regular spatial patterns of vegetation are a common sight in drylands. Their formation is a population-level response to water stress that increases water availability for the few via partial plant mortality. At the individual level, plants can also adapt to water stress by changing their phenotype. Phenotypic plasticity of individual plants and spatial patterning of plant populations have extensively been studied independently, but the likely interplay between the two robust mechanisms has remained unexplored. In this paper, we incorporate phenotypic plasticity into a multi-level theory of vegetation pattern formation and use a fascinating ecological phenomenon, the Namibian “fairy circles,” to demonstrate the need for such a theory. We show that phenotypic changes in the root structure of plants, coupled with pattern-forming feedback within soil layers, can resolve two puzzles that the current theory fails to explain: observations of multi-scale patterns and the absence of theoretically predicted large-scale stripe and spot patterns along the rainfall gradient. Importantly, we find that multi-level responses to stress unveil a wide variety of more effective stress-relaxation pathways, compared to single-level responses, implying a previously underestimated resilience of dryland ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2311528120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number50
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2023


  • fairy circles
  • multi-scale patterns
  • resilience
  • scale-dependent feedback
  • vegetation patterns

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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