researchers explored mycorhiza

Fungi as drivers of forest diversity

Did you know that fungi are not simply passengers, but drivers of plant diversity? Recently published studies, by researchers from Canada and USA identified the real king of the forest – fungus. 

Without any doubts, tree species diversity is critical for the maintenance of forest biodiversity and associated ecosystem functions. In one of our former posts we discussed the experiment of Dr Suzanne Simard (University of British Columbia), in which it was shown that only particular tree species were exchanging carbon and nutrients among each other, while other species were in their own world. 

Read more about Dr Simard experiment: How trees chat to each other every day?

It has been already known that plants and soil fungi can form symbiotic relationships – mycorrhizas, in which plants provide carbon in exchange for other nutrients such as phosphorus or nitrogen. Nevertheless, it was always less clear how these relationships can affect the larger natural landscape and forest biodiversity. Therefore the question arose: what controls forest diversity?

Recently, researchers under the leadership of Jonathan Bennett from Department of Biology at the University of British Columbia, found that forest diversity is not controlled by trees but the fungi that interact with them, typically at microscopic scales, below ground and out of sight. Researchers looked closely at plant-soil feedbacks in soil and seeds from 550 populations of 55 species of North American trees. Feedbacks ranged from positive to negative, depending on the type of mycorrhizal association, and were related to how densely the same species occurred in natural populations.

Read also: Ecosystem services, mountain forests and climate change

John Klironomos, a plant ecologist at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the publication said:

“I find it quite amazing that these organisms that we can’t see can have such a profound effect” 

Scientists concluded that plant-soil feedbacks appear to drive local plant diversity through interactions between the different types of plants and their associated soil biota.

Source: Bennett J.A., H. Maherali, K.O. Reinhart, Y. Lekberg, M.M Hart, J. Klironomos. 2017. Plant-soil feedbacks and mycorrhizal type influence temperate forest population dynamics. Science 355, 181-184

Main photo credit: Rafal Chudy

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