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Mycorrhizal feedbacks generate positive frequency dependence accelerating grassland succession

Koziol, Liz, Bever, James D.
Thejournal of ecology 2019 v.107 no.2 pp. 622-632
mutualism, mycorrhizal fungi, plant communities, plant establishment, prairies, seedlings, soil-plant interactions, species richness, vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae
Plant mutualists including arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi have been postulated as being important drivers of plant community diversity and succession. Late successional plants have been shown to be more responsive to AM fungi and more sensitive to AM fungal species identity, which could generate positive feedback and potentially accelerate succession. We test the effect of AM fungi on plant diversity and on frequency dependence predicted by positive plant–AM fungi feedback across a successional gradient. We created prairie mesocosms comprised of a majority of early successional, equal abundance, and a majority of late successional plant species. We inoculated these mesocosms and a field restoration experiment with 14 different communities of AM fungi from late successional prairies that varied in levels of species richness. Overall, we found that AM fungi increased plant diversity and this was driven by the response of late successional plant species to mycorrhizae. Our results indicate that AM fungal composition is more important than AM fungal diversity per se. We found that the effect of inoculation with a single species or groups of AM fungi depended on whether those fungi benefited late successional plant species. Early successional plants consistently exhibited negative frequency‐dependent growth regardless of fungal composition, while late successional plants demonstrated positive frequency‐dependent growth in our mesocosms—but only in the presence of beneficial AM fungal species. These results are consistent with positive plant–mycorrhizal feedbacks accelerating plant community successional trajectories once late successional plants establish. Mesocosm results were mirrored with field inoculation assays where we found that beneficial AM fungi facilitated late successional plant establishment. Synthesis. Our results provide support for beneficial arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi being a primary mechanism for positive plant–soil feedback driving plant community succession, as late successional seedlings grew faster and larger when their neighbours were also late successional plant species when they were associated with beneficial arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. We found that this positive feedback thereby accelerated succession in mesocosms and in the field.