Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi alter the competitive hierarchy among old-field plant species

Abstract

Inoculation with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi is known to increase the species diversity of plant communities. One mechanism that can increase the likelihood of species co-existence, and thus species diversity, is a trade-off between competitive ability and the magnitude of plant growth response to AM fungal inoculation. By suppressing the growth of strong competitors while simultaneously enhancing the growth of weak competitors, this trade-off would cause the competitive hierarchy to be less pronounced in soil inoculated with AM fungi relative to non-inoculated conditions. To test whether such a trade-off exists, we quantified competitive abilities and mycorrhizal growth response (MGR) among 21 species that co-occur in old fields in southern Ontario. Competitive ability was determined by calculating competitive effect (CE), or the degree to which each species suppressed the biomass of a common phytometer species, Plantago lanceolata. Higher CE values represent stronger competitive ability. Old-field species varied in their ability to suppress the biomass of the phytometer and MGR was generally positive. There was a statistically significant negative correlation between CE in non-inoculated soil and MGR (r = −0.49, P = 0.02). In addition, variance in CE was 73% lower in soil inoculated with AM fungi compared to non-inoculated soil (P = 0.0023). These findings support the hypothesis that AM fungi weaken strong competitors while enhancing the performance of weak competitors. Because this trade-off compressed the competitive hierarchy among old-field species in soil inoculated with AM fungi, it may be a mechanism by which mycorrhizal fungi enhance species evenness and diversity.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by a Discovery grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation through the Early Researcher Award program, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation. We thank A. Bell, C.M. Caruso, P. Holm, G.T. Poon, and P.J. Vogan for assistance at various stages of the project.

Author contribution statement

SS and HM conceived and designed the experiments. SS performed the experiments. SS and HM analyzed the data. SS and HM wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Hafiz Maherali.

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Communicated by Katherine L Gross.

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Stanescu, S., Maherali, H. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi alter the competitive hierarchy among old-field plant species. Oecologia 183, 479–491 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3771-6

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Keywords

  • Competition
  • Co-existence
  • Hierarchy
  • Mycorrhizal fungi
  • Phytometer