Tragedy of the commons as a result of root competition

Mordechai Gersani, Joel S. Brown, Erin E. O'Brien, Godfrey M. Maina, Zvika Abramsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

370 Scopus citations


1. We develop and test a game-theoretic model for considering the effects of intra- and interplant competition on root proliferation and reproductive yield. 2. We predict that if space and resources per individual are held constant, plants should produce more roots per individual and less reproductive yield per individual as the number of plants sharing the combined space increases. 3. We tested the predictions using soybean plants (Glycine max) cultivated in the glass-house either as owners or as two individuals sharing twice the space and nutrients. 4. Sharing individuals produced 85% more root mass than owners. Owners, however, produced 30% more reproductive yield per plant (dry mass of seeds), as a result of significantly more seed pods (8.70 vs. 7.66), more seeds per pod (1.87 vs. 1.72) and larger seeds (0.205 vs. 0.195 g seed 1), than did sharing individuals. 5. Total plant biomass did not differ between owners and sharing individuals, but owners had significantly higher shoot to root ratios, produced significantly more seeds per unit root mass, and allocated a significantly higher percentage of total biomass production to seeds. 6. Possession of an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) of root competition suggests that different roots and parts of a plant assess and respond to opportunities in a manner that maximizes the good of the whole plant. Thus, plants may be more sophisticated and share more in common with animals in their non-cognitive behaviours than previously thought. A plant operating as a co-ordinated whole should, all else being equal, first proliferate roots in unoccupied soil, then in soil occupied by a conspecific competitor, and lastly in soil already occupied by its own roots.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)660-669
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 4 Sep 2001


  • ESS
  • Game theory
  • Glycine max
  • Legume
  • Nutrient foraging
  • Plant behaviour
  • Root competition
  • Soybeans
  • Tragedy of the commons

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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