Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Climatic controls of decomposition drive the global biogeography of forest-tree symbioses

An Author Correction to this article was published on 28 June 2019

This article has been updated


The identity of the dominant root-associated microbial symbionts in a forest determines the ability of trees to access limiting nutrients from atmospheric or soil pools1,2, sequester carbon3,4 and withstand the effects of climate change5,6. Characterizing the global distribution of these symbioses and identifying the factors that control this distribution are thus integral to understanding the present and future functioning of forest ecosystems. Here we generate a spatially explicit global map of the symbiotic status of forests, using a database of over 1.1 million forest inventory plots that collectively contain over 28,000 tree species. Our analyses indicate that climate variables—in particular, climatically controlled variation in the rate of decomposition—are the primary drivers of the global distribution of major symbioses. We estimate that ectomycorrhizal trees, which represent only 2% of all plant species7, constitute approximately 60% of tree stems on Earth. Ectomycorrhizal symbiosis dominates forests in which seasonally cold and dry climates inhibit decomposition, and is the predominant form of symbiosis at high latitudes and elevation. By contrast, arbuscular mycorrhizal trees dominate in aseasonal, warm tropical forests, and occur with ectomycorrhizal trees in temperate biomes in which seasonally warm-and-wet climates enhance decomposition. Continental transitions between forests dominated by ectomycorrhizal or arbuscular mycorrhizal trees occur relatively abruptly along climate-driven decomposition gradients; these transitions are probably caused by positive feedback effects between plants and microorganisms. Symbiotic nitrogen fixers—which are insensitive to climatic controls on decomposition (compared with mycorrhizal fungi)—are most abundant in arid biomes with alkaline soils and high maximum temperatures. The climatically driven global symbiosis gradient that we document provides a spatially explicit quantitative understanding of microbial symbioses at the global scale, and demonstrates the critical role of microbial mutualisms in shaping the distribution of plant species.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: The global distribution of GFBi training data.
Fig. 2: A small number of environmental variables predict the majority of global turnover in forest symbiotic status.
Fig. 3: The distribution of forest symbiotic status across biomes is related to climatic controls over decomposition.
Fig. 4: Global maps of predicted forest-tree symbiotic state.

Data availability

Information regarding symbiotic guild assignments, model selection (including global rasters of our model projections for ectomycorrhizal, arbuscular mycorrhizal and N-fixer proportion of tree basal area) and analyses is available as Supplementary Data. The GFBi database is available upon written request at Any other relevant data are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.

Change history

  • 28 June 2019

    In this Letter, a middle initial and additional affiliation have been added for author G. J. Nabuurs; two statements have been added to the Supplementary Acknowledgements; and a citation to the French National Institute has been added to the Methods; see accompanying Author Correction for further details.


  1. Batterman, S. A. et al. Key role of symbiotic dinitrogen fixation in tropical forest secondary succession. Nature 502, 224–227 (2013).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Shah, F. et al. Ectomycorrhizal fungi decompose soil organic matter using oxidative mechanisms adapted from saprotrophic ancestors. New Phytol. 209, 1705–1719 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Averill, C., Turner, B. L. & Finzi, A. C. Mycorrhiza-mediated competition between plants and decomposers drives soil carbon storage. Nature 505, 543–545 (2014).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Clemmensen, K. E. et al. Roots and associated fungi drive long-term carbon sequestration in boreal forest. Science 339, 1615–1618 (2013).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Cheeke, T. E. et al. Dominant mycorrhizal association of trees alters carbon and nutrient cycling by selecting for microbial groups with distinct enzyme function. New Phytol. 214, 432–442 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Terrer, C., Vicca, S., Hungate, B. A., Phillips, R. P. & Prentice, I. C. Mycorrhizal association as a primary control of the CO2 fertilization effect. Science 353, 72–74 (2016).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Brundrett, M. C. & Tedersoo, L. Evolutionary history of mycorrhizal symbioses and global host plant diversity. New Phytol. 220, 1108–1115 (2018).

  8. Averill, C. & Hawkes, C. V. Ectomycorrhizal fungi slow soil carbon cycling. Ecol. Lett. 19, 937–947 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bennett, J. A. et al. Plant–soil feedbacks and mycorrhizal type influence temperate forest population dynamics. Science 355, 181–184 (2017).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Phillips, R. P., Brzostek, E. & Midgley, M. G. The mycorrhizal-associated nutrient economy: a new framework for predicting carbon-nutrient couplings in temperate forests. New Phytol. 199, 41–51 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Crowther, T. W. et al. Mapping tree density at a global scale. Nature 525, 201–205 (2015).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. van der Heijden, M. G., Martin, F. M., Selosse, M. A. & Sanders, I. R. Mycorrhizal ecology and evolution: the past, the present, and the future. New Phytol. 205, 1406–1423 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Binkley, D., Sollins, P., Bell, R., Sachs, D. & Myrold, D. Biogeochemistry of adjacent conifer and alder-conifer stands. Ecology 73, 2022–2033 (1992).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Leake, J. et al. Networks of power and influence: the role of mycorrhizal mycelium in controlling plant communities and agroecosystem functioning. Can. J. Bot. 82, 1016–1045 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Hedin, L. O., Brookshire, E. N. J., Menge, D. N. L. & Barron, A. R. The nitrogen paradox in tropical rainforest ecosystems. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 40, 613–635 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Read, D. J. Mycorrhizas in ecosystems. Experientia 47, 376–391 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Houlton, B. Z., Wang, Y.-P., Vitousek, P. M. & Field, C. B. A unifying framework for dinitrogen fixation in the terrestrial biosphere. Nature 454, 327–330 (2008).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Peay, K. G. The mutualistic niche: mycorrhizal symbiosis and community dynamics. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 47, 143–164 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Pellegrini, A. F. A., Staver, A. C., Hedin, L. O., Charles-Dominique, T. & Tourgee, A. Aridity, not fire, favors nitrogen-fixing plants across tropical savanna and forest biomes. Ecology 97, 2177–2183 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Tuomi, M. et al. Leaf litter decomposition—estimates of global variability based on Yasso07 model. Ecol. Modell. 220, 3362–3371 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Ma, Z. et al. Evolutionary history resolves global organization of root functional traits. Nature 555, 94–97 (2018).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Lu, M. & Hedin, L. O. Global plant–symbiont organization and emergence of biogeochemical cycles resolved by evolution-based trait modelling. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 3, 239–250 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Scheffer, M., Carpenter, S., Foley, J. A., Folke, C. & Walker, B. Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature 413, 591–596 (2001).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Reich, P. B. et al. Geographic range predicts photosynthetic and growth response to warming in co-occurring tree species. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 148 (2015).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. McGroddy, M. E., Daufresne, T. & Hedin, L. O. Scaling of C:N:P stoichiometry in forests worldwide: implications of terrestrial redfield-type ratios. Ecology 85, 2390–2401 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Reich, P. B. & Oleksyn, J. Global patterns of plant leaf N and P in relation to temperature and latitude. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 11001–11006 (2004).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Corrales, A., Mangan, S. A., Turner, B. L. & Dalling, J. W. An ectomycorrhizal nitrogen economy facilitates monodominance in a neotropical forest. Ecol. Lett. 19, 383–392 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Menge, D. N., Lichstein, J. W. & Angeles-Pérez, G. Nitrogen fixation strategies can explain the latitudinal shift in nitrogen-fixing tree abundance. Ecology 95, 2236–2245 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Liao, W., Menge, D. N. L., Lichstein, J. W. & Ángeles-Pérez, G. Global climate change will increase the abundance of symbiotic nitrogen-fixing trees in much of North America. Glob. Change Biol. 23, 4777–4787 (2017).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Gei, M. et al. Legume abundance along successional and rainfall gradients in neotropical forests. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 2, 1104–1111 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Liang, J. et al. Positive biodiversity–productivity relationship predominant in global forests. Science 354, aaf8957 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Chamberlain, S. A. & Szöcs, E. taxize: taxonomic search and retrieval in R. F1000Res. 2, 191 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Brundrett, M. C. Mycorrhizal associations and other means of nutrition of vascular plants: understanding the global diversity of host plants by resolving conflicting information and developing reliable means of diagnosis. Plant Soil 320, 37–77 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. Werner, G. D., Cornwell, W. K., Sprent, J. I., Kattge, J. & Kiers, E. T. A single evolutionary innovation drives the deep evolution of symbiotic N2-fixation in angiosperms. Nat. Commun. 5, 4087 (2014).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Werner, G. D., Cornwell, W. K., Cornelissen, J. H. & Kiers, E. T. Evolutionary signals of symbiotic persistence in the legume–rhizobia mutualism. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 10262–10269 (2015).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Afkhami, M. E. et al. Symbioses with nitrogen-fixing bacteria: nodulation and phylogenetic data across legume genera. Ecology 99, 502 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Tedersoo, L. et al. Global database of plants with root-symbiotic nitrogen fixation: Nod DB. J. Veg. Sci. 29, 560–568 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Hayward, J. & Hynson, N. A. New evidence of ectomycorrhizal fungi in the Hawaiian Islands associated with the endemic host Pisonia sandwicensis (Nyctaginaceae). Fungal Ecol. 12, 62–69 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Lambers, H., Martinoia, E. & Renton, M. Plant adaptations to severely phosphorus-impoverished soils. Curr. Opin. Plant Biol. 25, 23–31 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  40. Wang, B. & Qiu, Y.-L. Phylogenetic distribution and evolution of mycorrhizas in land plants. Mycorrhiza 16, 299–363 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. Soltis, D. E. et al. Chloroplast gene sequence data suggest a single origin of the predisposition for symbiotic nitrogen fixation in angiosperms. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 92, 2647–2651 (1995).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. Palosuo, T., Liski, J., Trofymow, J. & Titus, B. Litter decomposition affected by climate and litter quality—testing the Yasso model with litterbag data from the Canadian intersite decomposition experiment. Ecol. Modell. 189, 183–198 (2005).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. Bradford, M. A. et al. Climate fails to predict wood decomposition at regional scales. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 625 (2014).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  44. Evans, J. S. & Murphy, M. A. rfUtilities: random forests model selection and performance evaluation. R package version 2.1-3 (2018).

  45. Core Writing Team et al. (eds) Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report (IPCC, Geneva, 2014).

  46. Schepaschenko, D. et al. A dataset of forest biomass structure for Eurasia. Sci. Data 4, 170070 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was made possible by the Global Forest Biodiversity Database, which represents the work of over 200 independent investigators and their public and private funding agencies (see Supplementary Acknowledgements).

Reviewer information

Nature thanks Martin Bidartondo, David Bohan and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations




K.G.P. and T.W.C. conceived the study; T.W.C., J.L., P.B.R., G.J.N., S.d.-M., M.Z., N.P., B.H., X.Z. and C.Z. conceived and organized the GFBi database; K.G.P., B.S.S., G.D.A.W. and M.E.V.N. compiled the symbiosis database; B.S.S. carried out the primary data analysis; M.E.V.N. and D.R. contributed to data compilation and analysis; B.S.S., T.W.C., M.E.V.N. and K.G.P. wrote the initial manuscript; B.S.S., T.W.C., J.L., M.E.V.N., G.D.A.W., P.B.R., G.J.N., S.d.-M., M.Z., N.P., B.H., X.Z., C.Z. and K.G.P. made substantial revisions to all versions of the manuscript; all other named authors provided forest inventory data and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to T. W. Crowther, J. Liang or K. G. Peay.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables 1–8 and Supplementary Figures 1–26.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Acknowledgments.

Supplementary Data

This zip folder contains Supplementary Data files and a guide showing the climatic controls of decomposition drive the global biogeography of forest tree symbioses.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Steidinger, B.S., Crowther, T.W., Liang, J. et al. Climatic controls of decomposition drive the global biogeography of forest-tree symbioses. Nature 569, 404–408 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing