Plant species richness and functional groups have different effects on soil water content in a decade-long grassland experiment

Christine Fischer, Sophia Leimer, Christiane Roscher, Janneke Ravenek, Hans de Kroon, Yvonne Kreutziger, Jussi Baade, Holger Beßler, Nico Eisenhauer, Alexandra Weigelt, Liesje Mommer, Markus Lange, Gerd Gleixner, Wolfgang Wilcke, Boris Schröder, Anke Hildebrandt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


The temporal and spatial dynamics of soil water are closely interlinked with terrestrial ecosystems functioning. The interaction between plant community properties such as species composition and richness and soil water mirrors fundamental ecological processes determining above-ground–below-ground feedbacks. Plant–water relations and water stress have attracted considerable attention in biodiversity experiments. Yet, although soil scientific research suggests an influence of ecosystem productivity on soil hydraulic properties, temporal changes of the soil water content and soil hydraulic properties remain largely understudied in biodiversity experiments. Thus, insights on how plant diversity—productivity relationships affect soil water are lacking. Here, we determine which factors related to plant community composition (species and functional group richness, presence of plant functional groups) and soil (organic carbon concentration) affect soil water in a long-term grassland biodiversity experiment (The Jena Experiment). Both plant species richness and the presence of particular functional groups affected soil water content, while functional group richness played no role. The effect of species richness changed from positive to negative and expanded to deeper soil with time. Shortly after establishment, increased topsoil water content was related to higher leaf area index in species-rich plots, which enhanced shading. In later years, higher species richness increased topsoil organic carbon, likely improving soil aggregation. Improved aggregation, in turn, dried topsoils in species-rich plots due to faster drainage of rainwater. Functional groups affected soil water distribution, likely due to plant traits affecting root water uptake depths, shading, or water-use efficiency. For instance, topsoils in plots containing grasses were generally drier, while plots with legumes were moister. Synthesis. Our decade-long experiment reveals that the maturation of grasslands changes the effects of plant richness from influencing soil water content through shading effects to altering soil physical characteristics in addition to modification of water uptake depth. Functional groups affected the soil water distribution by characteristic shifts of root water uptake depth, but did not enhance exploitation of the overall soil water storage. Our results reconcile previous seemingly contradictory results on the relation between grassland species diversity and soil moisture and highlight the role of vegetation composition for soil processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-141
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Jena Experiment
  • biodiversity
  • functional groups
  • plant–soil–water relation
  • soil water content
  • spatial–temporal variability
  • species richness


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