Aboveground responses to belowground root damage detected by non-destructive sensing metrics in three tree species

Matan Azar, Gabriel Mulero, Yaara Oppenheimer-Shaanan, David Helman, Tamir Klein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Root systems form a significant part of tree biomass and function. Yet, roots are hidden from our eyes, making it difficult to track the belowground processes. By contrast, our capacity to detect aboveground changes in trees has been continuously improving using optical methods. Here, we tested two fundamental questions: (1) To what extent can we detect aboveground responses to mechanical damage of the root system? (2) To what extent are roots redundant? We applied three different non-destructive remote sensing means: (1) optical means to derive leaf greenness, (2) infrared means to detect the changes in leaf surface temperature and (3) spectral means to derive five vegetation indices (i.e. the photochemical reflectance index (PRI), the chlorophyll photosynthesis index (CIRed-edge), the anthocyanin reflectance index 1, the structure insensitive pigment index and the normalized difference water index (NDWI)). We recorded the above metrics for hours and days and up to a month following induced root damage in three key Mediterranean tree species: Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis Mill.), Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos Webb.) and Carob (Ceratonia siliqua L.). To induce root damage, we removed 25, 50 and 75 percent of the root system in each species and compared it with control saplings. Tree aboveground (canopy) responses to root damage increased over time and with damage level. Leaf warming (up to 3C) and decreased PRI were the most significant and rapid responses, with temperature differences being visible as early as 2 days following root damage. NDWI and greenness were the least sensitive, with responses detectable only at 75 percent root damage and as late as 14 or 30 days following root damage. Responses varied vastly among species, with carob being the most sensitive and pine being the least. Changes in leaf temperature and PRI indicated that leaf transpiration and photosynthesis were impaired by root damage. Although trees build roots in excess, mechanical damage will eventually decrease transpiration and photosynthesis across tree species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)672-689
Number of pages18
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2023
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2023. Published by Oxford University Press.


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