The majority of terrestrial plants associate with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, which typically facilitate the uptake of limiting mineral nutrients by plants in exchange for plant carbon. However, hundreds of non-photosynthetic plant species—mycoheterotrophs—depend entirely on AM fungi for carbon as well as mineral nutrition. Mycoheterotrophs can provide insight into the operation and regulation of AM fungal relationships, but little is known about the factors, fungal or otherwise, that affect mycoheterotroph abundance and distribution. In a lowland tropical forest in Panama, we conducted the first systematic investigation into the influence of abiotic factors on the abundance and distribution of mycoheterotrophs, to ask whether the availability of nitrogen and phosphorus altered the occurrence of mycoheterotrophs and their AM fungal partners. Across a natural fertility gradient spanning the isthmus of Panama, and also in a long-term nutrient-addition experiment, mycoheterotrophs were entirely absent when soil exchangeable phosphate concentrations exceeded 2 mg P kg−1. Experimental phosphorus addition reduced the abundance of AM fungi, and also reduced the abundance of the specific AM fungal taxa required by the mycoheterotrophs, suggesting that the phosphorus sensitivity of mycoheterotrophs is underpinned by the phosphorus sensitivity of their AM fungal hosts. The soil phosphorus concentration of 2 mg P kg−1 also corresponds to a marked shift in tree community composition and soil phosphatase activity across the fertility gradient, suggesting that our findings have broad ecological significance.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3666652.
- Received September 22, 2016.
- Accepted January 4, 2017.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.