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Ecology. 2008 Jul;89(7):1791-801.

Disruption of a belowground mutualism alters interactions between plants and their floral visitors.

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Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9, Canada.


Plants engage in diverse and intimate interactions with unrelated taxa. For example, aboveground floral visitors provide pollination services, while belowground arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) enhance nutrient capture. Traditionally in ecology, these processes were studied in isolation, reinforcing the prevailing assumption that these above- and belowground processes were also functionally distinct. More recently, there has been a growing realization that the soil surface is not a barrier to many ecological interactions, particularly those involving plants (who live simultaneously above and below ground). Because of the potentially large impact that mycorrhizae and floral visitors can have on plant performance and community dynamics, we designed an experiment to test whether these multi-species mutualisms were interdependent under field conditions. Using benomyl, a widely used fungicide, we suppressed AMF in a native grassland, measuring plant, fungal, and floral-visitor responses after three years of fungal suppression. AMF suppression caused a shift in the community of floral visitors from large-bodied bees to small-bodied bees and flies, and reduced the total number of floral visits per flowering stem 67% across the 23 flowering species found in the plots. Fungal suppression has species-specific effects on floral visits for the six most common flowering plants in this experiment. Exploratory analyses suggest these results were due to changes in floral-visitor behavior due to altered patch-level floral display, rather than through direct effects of AMF suppression on floral morphology. Our findings indicate that AMF are an important, and overlooked, driver of floral-visitor community structure with the potential to affect pollination services. These results support the growing body of research indicating that interactions among ecological interactions can be of meaningful effect size under natural field conditions and may influence individual performance, population dynamics, and community structure.

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