The occurrence of natural root grafts, the union of roots of the same or different trees, is common and shared across tree species. However, their significance for forest ecology remains little understood. While early research suggested negative effects of root grafting with the risk of pathogen transmission, recent evidence supports the hypothesis that it is an adaptive strategy that reduces stress by facilitating resource exchange. Here, by analysing mangrove root graft networks in a non-destructive way at stand level, we show further evidence of cooperation-associated benefits of root grafting. Grafted trees were found to dominate the upper canopy of the forest, and as the probability of grafting and the frequency of grafted groups increased with a higher environmental stress, the mean number of trees within grafted groups decreased. While trees do not actively ‘choose’ neighbours to graft to, our findings point to the existence of underlying mechanisms that regulate ‘optimal group size’ selection related to resource use within cooperating networks. This work calls for further studies to better understand tree interactions (i.e. network hydraulic redistribution) and their consequences for individual tree and forest stand resilience.
|Publication status||Published - Dec 2021|