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Impact of mycorrhization on the abundance, growth and leaf nutrient status of ferns along a tropical elevational gradient

Impact of mycorrhization on the abundance, growth and leaf nutrient status of ferns along a tropical elevational gradient

Oecologia 175(3): 887-900

Mycorrhizal fungi are crucial for the ecological success of land plants, providing their hosts with nutrients in exchange for organic C. However, not all plants are mycorrhizal, especially ferns, of which about one-third of the species lack this symbiosis. Because the mycorrhizal status is evolutionarily ancestral, this lack of mycorrhizae must have ecological advantages, but what these advantages are and how they affect the competitive ability of non-mycorrhizal plants under natural conditions is currently unknown. To address this uncertainty, we studied terrestrial fern assemblages and species abundances as well as their mycorrhization status, leaf nutrient concentration and relative annual growth along an elevational gradient in the Ecuadorian Andes (500-4,000 m). We surveyed the mycorrhizal status of 375 root samples belonging to 85 species, and found mycorrhizae in 89% of the samples. The degree of mycorrhization decreased with elevation but was unrelated to soil nutrients. Species with mycorrhizae were significantly more abundant than non-mycorrhizal species, but non-mycorrhizal species had significantly higher relative growth and concentrations of leaf N, P, Mg, and Ca. Our study thus shows that despite lower abundances, non-mycorrhizal fern species did not appear to be limited in their growth or nutrient supply relative to mycorrhizal ones. As a basis for future studies, we hypothesize that non-mycorrhizal fern species may be favoured in special microhabitats of the forest understory with high soil nutrient or water availability, or that the ecological benefit of mycorrhizae is not related to nutrient uptake but rather to, for example, pathogen resistance.

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Accession: 053720372

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PMID: 24719210

DOI: 10.1007/s00442-014-2941-7

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