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Divergent plant–soil feedbacks could alter future elevation ranges and ecosystem dynamics


Plant–soil feedbacks (PSF) are important interactions that may influence range dynamics in a changing world. What remains largely unknown is the generality of plant–soil biotic interactions across populations and the potential role of specific soil biota, both of which are key for understanding how PSF might change future communities and ecosystems. We combined landscape-level field observations and experimental soil treatments to test whether a dominant tree alters soil environments to impact its own performance and range shifts towards higher elevations. We show: (1) soil conditioning by trees varies with elevation, (2) soil biota relate to PSF, (3) under simulated conditions, biotic PSF constrain range shifts at lower elevations but allow for expansions at higher elevations, and (4) differences in soil conditioning predict feedback outcomes in specific range-shift scenarios. These results suggest that variable plant–soil biotic interactions may influence the migration and fragmentation of tree species, and that models incorporating soil parameters will more accurately predict future species distributions.

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Figure 1: Field sampling and experimental design to test how PSF may contribute to P. angustifolia range shifts.
Figure 2: Indicative of a positive plant–soil biotic feedback, tree growth relates to conditioned soil communities and the relative abundance of Betaproteobacteria.
Figure 3: Range-shift PSF changed from positive to negative as trees were simulated to move upwards in elevation by interacting with soil communities from higher sites.
Figure 4: Range-shift PSF are related to residual variation in conditioned soil differences between elevation sites after accounting for natural soil variation (unconditioned soils) across elevation gradients.


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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE-0929298. Funding for the project was also provided from the University of Tennessee. We thank A. Krohn at the Environmental Genetics and Genomics Laboratory for sequencing and bioinformatics assistance, as well as A. Classen and N. Sanders for providing helpful comments on the manuscript. Special thanks to P. Patterson at Northern Arizona University as well as I. Ware, K. McFarland, P. Meidl, C. Daws, E. Johnson, R. Wooliver, L. Mueller, A. Pfennigwerth and R. Zenni for field, greenhouse and lab support.

Author information




M.E.V.N., J.K.B. and J.A.S. participated in the study design. M.E.V.N. performed the field work, data collection and statistical analyses. All authors discussed the results. M.E.V.N. wrote the initial manuscript draft, with significant edits from J.K.B. and J.A.S.

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Correspondence to Michael E. Van Nuland or Joseph K. Bailey or Jennifer A. Schweitzer.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion; Supplementary Methods; Supplementary Tables 1–10; Supplementary Figures 1–7 (PDF 1728 kb)

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Van Nuland, M., Bailey, J. & Schweitzer, J. Divergent plant–soil feedbacks could alter future elevation ranges and ecosystem dynamics. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0150 (2017).

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