Vegetation change in high latitude tundra ecosystems is expected to accelerate due to increased wildfire activity. High-severity fires increase the availability of mineral soil seedbeds, which facilitates recruitment, yet fire also alters soil microbial composition, which could significantly impact seedling establishment.
We investigated the effects of fire severity on soil biota and associated effects on plant performance for two plant species predicted to expand into Arctic tundra. We inoculated seedlings in a growth chamber experiment with soils collected from the largest tundra fire recorded in the Arctic and used molecular tools to characterize root-associated fungal communities. Seedling biomass was significantly related to the composition of fungal inoculum. Biomass decreased as fire severity increased and the proportion of pathogenic fungi increased.
Our results suggest that effects of fire severity on soil biota reduces seedling performance and thus we hypothesize that in certain ecological contexts fire-severity effects on plant-fungal interactions may dampen the expected increases in tree and shrub establishment after tundra fire.
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Root-associated fungi, particularly ectomycorrhizal fungi (EMF), are critical symbionts of all boreal tree species. Although climatically driven increases in wildfire frequency and extent have been hypothesized to increase vegetation transitions from tundra to boreal forest, fire reduces mycorrhizal inoculum. Therefore, changes in mycobiont inoculum may potentially limit tree-seedling establishment beyond current treeline. We investigated whether ectomycorrhizal shrubs that resprout after fire support similar fungal taxa to those that associate with tree seedlings that establish naturally after fire. We then assessed whether mycobiont identity correlates with the biomass or nutrient status of these tree seedlings. The majority of fungal taxa observed on shrub and seedling root systems were EMF, with some dark septate endophytes and ericoid mycorrhizal taxa. Seedlings and adjacent shrubs associated with similar arrays of fungal taxa, and there were strong correlations between the structure of seedling and shrub fungal communities. These results show that resprouting postfire shrubs support fungal taxa compatible with tree seedlings that establish after wildfire. Shrub taxon, distance to the nearest shrub and fire severity influenced the similarity between seedling and shrub fungal communities. Fungal composition was correlated with both foliar C:N ratio and seedling biomass and was one of the strongest explanatory variables predicting seedling biomass. While correlative, these results suggest that mycobionts are important to nutrient acquisition and biomass accrual of naturally establishing tree seedlings at treeline and that mycobiont taxa shared by resprouting postfire vegetation may be a significant source of inoculum for tree-seedling establishment beyond current treeline.