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Feedback with soil biota contributes to plant rarity and invasiveness in communities


Understanding the relative abundance of species in plant communities is an unsolved problem 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. Mechanisms such as competition, resource partitioning5, dispersal ability10 and predation tolerance6,7,8,9 do not adequately explain relative abundance under field conditions11,12. Recent work suggests that interactions between plants and soil microbes is important13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21. Here I show that such interaction explains a significant proportion of the variance in the relative abundance of species in plant communities. Rare plants exhibited a relative decrease in growth on ‘home’ soil in which pathogens had had a chance to accumulate, whereas invasive plants benefited from interactions with mycorrhizal fungi. Some plant species accumulate pathogens quickly and maintain low densities as a result of the accumulation of species-specific pathogens, whereas others accumulate species-specific pathogens more slowly and do not experience negative feedback until plant densities reach high levels13,15,21. These results indicate that plants have different abilities to influence their abundance by changing the structure of their soil communities, and that this is an important regulator of plant community structure.

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Figure 1: The soil feedback responses of five invasive and five rare plant species.
Figure 2: The feedback responses of five invasive and five rare plant species to pathogen/saprobes, mycorrhizal fungi, and sterile soil fractions.
Figure 3: The relationship between relative plant abundance in an old-field site and soil feedback response.


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I thank J. Bever, M. Hart, B. Husband and R. Reader for comments on the manuscript. I also thank A. Jones, G. LaPierre, G. Lewis, D. MacIntosh, J. Martin, J. Mosquin, P. Moutoglis and A. Shaw for laboratory and field assistance. This work was supported by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Klironomos, J. Feedback with soil biota contributes to plant rarity and invasiveness in communities. Nature 417, 67–70 (2002).

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