Root foraging for nutrient “hot spots” is a key strategy by which some plants maximize nutrient gain from their carbon investment in root and mycorrhizal hyphae. Foraging strategies may depend on costs of root construction, with thick roots generally costing more per unit length than thin roots. Investment in mycorrhizal hyphae, which are considerably thinner than roots, may represent an alternative strategy for cost-effective nutrient foraging, especially for thick-root species. Type of mycorrhiza may matter, as ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi are associated with longer hyphae and greater ability to mineralize organic matter than arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi.
Among AM trees in both subtropical forests in SE China and in temperate forests in central Pennsylvania, USA, we found that tree species with thin roots proliferated their roots in soil patches enriched with mineral nutrients to a greater extent than species with thick roots. In addition, thick-root species were consistently colonized more heavily with mycorrhizal fungi than thin-root species, although nutrient addition tended to diminish colonization. In a common garden in central Pennsylvania of both AM and EM tree species, we found that nutrient patches enriched with organic materials resulted in greater root and mycorrhizal fungal proliferation compared to those enriched with inorganic nutrients and that thick-root species proliferated more with their mycorrhizal fungi whereas thin-root species proliferated more with their roots. We further examined with many more species, patterns of root and mycorrhizal fungal proliferation in organic-nutrient-enriched patches. Foraging precision, or the extent that roots or mycorrhizal hyphae grew in the enriched patch relative to the unenriched patch, was related to both root thickness and type of mycorrhiza. In both AM and EM trees, thick-root species were not selective foragers of either their roots or hyphae. In thin-root species, there was strong selectivity in foraging with AM trees showing high precision in root foraging and EM trees showing high precision in mycorrhizal hyphal foraging. Collectively, these results indicate that we can improve our understanding of how trees forage for nutrients by considering both root morphology and type of mycorrhizas (AM or EM).