Large-diameter trees and deadwood correspond with belowground ectomycorrhizal fungal richness

Background: Large-diameter trees have an outsized influence on aboveground forest dynamics, composition, and structure. Although their influence on aboveground processes is well studied, their role in shaping belowground fungal communities is largely unknown. We sought to test if (i) fungal community spatial structure matched aboveground forest structure; (ii) fungal functional guilds exhibited differential associations to aboveground trees, snags, and deadwood; and (iii) that large-diameter trees and snags have a larger influence on fungal community richness than smaller-diameter trees. We used MiSeq sequencing of fungal communities collected from soils in a spatially intensive survey in a portion of Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah, USA. We used random forest models to explore the spatial structure of fungal communities as they relate to explicitly mapped trees and deadwood distributed across 1.15 ha of a 15.32-ha mapped subalpine forest.

Results: We found 6,177 fungal amplicon sequence variants across 117 sequenced samples. Tree diameter, deadwood presence, and tree species identity explained more than twice as much variation (38.7% vs. 10.4%) for ectomycorrhizal composition and diversity than for the total or saprotrophic fungal communities. Species identity and distance to the nearest large-diameter tree (≥ 40.2 cm) were better predictors of fungal richness than were the identity and distance to the nearest tree. Soil nutrients, topography, and tree species differentially influenced the composition and diversity of each fungal guild. Locally rare tree species had an outsized influence on fungal community richness.

Conclusions: These results highlight that fungal guilds are differentially associated with the location, size, and species of aboveground trees. Large-diameter trees are implicated as drivers of belowground fungal diversity, particularly for ectomycorrhizal fungi.

Keywords: Belowground ecology, Ectomycorrhizal fungi, Pinus flexilis, Pinus longaeva, Saprotrophic fungi, Smithsonian ForestGEO, Spatial dynamics, Utah Forest Dynamics Plot

Joseph D. Birch, James A. Lutz, Soren Struckman, Jessica R. Miesel, and Justine Karst
Ecological Processes