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Scale-Dependent Influences of Distance and Vegetation on the Composition of Aboveground and Belowground Tropical Fungal Communities


Fungi provide essential ecosystem services and engage in a variety of symbiotic relationships with trees. In this study, we investigate the spatial relationship of trees and fungi at a community level. We characterized the spatial dynamics for above- and belowground fungi using a series of forest monitoring plots, at nested spatial scales, located in the tropical South Pacific, in Vanuatu. Fungal communities from different habitats were sampled using metagenomic analysis of the nuclear ribosomal ITS1 region. Fungal communities exhibited strong distance–decay of similarity across our entire sampling range (3–110,000 m) and also at small spatial scales (< 50 m). Unexpectedly, this pattern was inverted at an intermediate scale (3.7–26 km). At large scales (80–110 km), belowground and aboveground fungal communities responded inversely to increasing geographic distance. Aboveground fungal community turnover (beta diversity) was best explained, at all scales, by geographic distance. In contrast, belowground fungal community turnover was best explained by geographic distance at small scales and tree community composition at large scales. Fungal communities from various habitats respond differently to the influences of habitat and geographic distance. At large geographic distances (80–110 km), community turnover for aboveground fungi is better explained by spatial distance, whereas community turnover for belowground fungi is better explained by plant community turnover. Future syntheses of spatial dynamics among fungal communities must explicitly consider geographic scale to appropriately contextualize community turnover.

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Availability of Data and Material (Data Transparency)

The sequencing dataset analyzed during the current study is available in the NCBI Sequence Read Archive. (BioProject ID PRJNA634909). Tree community and transect data are available from Figshare (doi


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The authors would like to thank the reviewers and Drs. Nicole Hynson, Tom Ranker, Nhu Nguyen, and Michael Kantar for improving this manuscript. We are also very appreciative of Presley Dovo and the Vanuatu Department of Forestry for logistical support. This project would not be possible without field support from the ever-growing network of people associated with Plants mo Pipol blong Vanuatu. We would also like to recognize the contributions of the late Philemon Ala who had been helping with Plants mo Pipol since its inception. Finally, we are grateful to the many communities of Aneityum and Tanna for their kindness, hospitality, and for sharing so much invaluable knowledge, tankyu tumas.


A.B., T.T., and A.S.A. were supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (1555793). G.M.P. was supported by a National Science Foundation grant awarded to NYGB (1555657).

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Correspondence to André Boraks.

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Boraks, A., Plunkett, G.M., Doro, T.M. et al. Scale-Dependent Influences of Distance and Vegetation on the Composition of Aboveground and Belowground Tropical Fungal Communities. Microb Ecol 81, 874–883 (2021).

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  • Fungi
  • Tree
  • Community
  • Vanuatu
  • Spatial scale
  • Distance–decay of similarity