Saturday, September 4, 2010

Mycorrhizal fungi and grassland community structure

Relationship between mycorrhizal infection rates and the log-transformed response of species abundance to grazing.

The structuring of plant communities is complex. There are a myriad of proximal and distal factors that can influence the abundance of species. The role of mycorrhizal fungi in structuring grassland communities has always been opaque. In temperate grasslands, many of the species are dependent on arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, yet many non-mycorrhizal species are found throughout the grasslands. Whether these non-mycorrhizal species tap unique pools or even are facilitated by the mycorrhizal species is really unknown.

Over a decade ago, Wilson and Hartnett (1998) quantified the dependence of ~100 grassland species on mycorrhizal fungi. There had never been a screening study like it. Nor has there been one since. Their work largely compared different functional groups, with the conclusion that C4 grasses are the most dependent on mycorrhizal fungi and legumes the least. The work implied that success at Konza would be dependent on the ability to utilize mycorrhizal fungi, but this was never quantified.

Recently, we've compared the screening data with actual abundances from Konza. It turns out that there is no relationship between abundance and mycorrhizal responsiveness or infection rates. As such, mycorrhizal symbioses are likely not necessary for success.

That said, mycorrhizal symbioses do determine which species perform better under certain conditions. For example, almost 25% of the variation in the response of species abundance to the presence of grazers (bison) was explained by the mycorrhizal infection rate. Grazing promoted non-mycorrhizal species. Similarly, suppression of fire promotes non-mycorrhizal species (data not shown).

In both cases, fire suppression and grazing increase the availability of nutrients relative to other resources. How to think of the role of mycorrhizal under different burning or grazing regimes is still not clear. It's easy to say that fire suppression or grazing increases nutrient availability, which decreases the need for mycorrhizal fungi. But why? Is it because they are too much of a carbon drain? Many of the high-fire, low-grazing species just do not grow at all in the absence of mycorrhizal fungi, so it is unlikely to be associated with competition for nutrients. And why would mycorrhizal responses/infection predict just the responses to grazing/fire, but not abundance overall. In contrast, we see traits like leaf tissue density--which I think of as being associated with low nutrient availability--prediction abundance across Konza, but not the responses to fire and grazing. 

How to proceed on the issue is not easy, but it's a curious pattern to line up with a number of others in understanding how grassland communities are structured.

Wilson, G. W. T. and D. C. Hartnett. 1998. Interspecific variation in plant responses to mycorrhizal colonization in tallgrass prairie. American Journal of Botany 85:1732-1738.

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