Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi reduce the differences in competitiveness between dominant and subordinate plant species
In grassland communities, plants can be classified as dominants or subordinates according to their relative abundances, but the factors controlling such distributions remain unclear. Here, we test whether the presence of the arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungus Glomus intraradices affects the competitiveness of two dominant (Taraxacum officinale and Agrostis capillaris) and two subordinate species (Prunella vulgaris and Achillea millefolium). Plants were grown in pots in the presence or absence of the fungus, in monoculture and in mixtures of both species groups with two and four species. In the absence of G. intraradices, dominants were clearly more competitive than subordinates. In inoculated pots, the fungus acted towards the parasitic end of the mutualism-parasitism continuum and had an overall negative effect on the growth of the plant species. However, the negative effects of the AM fungus were more pronounced on dominant species reducing the differences in competitiveness between dominant and subordinate species. The effects of G. intraradices varied with species composition highlighting the importance of plant community to mediate the effects of AM fungi. Dominant species were negatively affected from the AM fungus in mixtures, while subordinates grew identically with and without the fungus. Therefore, our findings predict that the plant dominance hierarchy may flatten out when dominant species are more reduced than subordinate species in an unfavourable AM fungal relationship (parasitism).