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Africa's fynbos plants hold their ground with the world's thinnest roots

The roots of some plants draw a line in the sand - literally.

In South Africa, you can walk through cool, lush forests and sun-drenched bushes in a single step. New research shows that these narrow boundaries between dramatically different ecosystems are maintained by intense competition between plant roots.

Fynbos -- a type of species-rich shrub found only at the far southern tip of Africa -- has the thinnest roots of any plant community in the world, researchers report in the March 1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These nutrient-gobbling roots, as well as some fire-stimulus adaptations, help transform fynbos into an area where only fynbos plants can survive.

Interested in what factors organize nature on a very wide scale, ecologist Lars Hedin and his colleagues wanted to look at places where environmental changes over time can shift ecosystems between two distinct states.

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