Closely related tree species support distinct communities of seed-associated fungi in a lowland tropical forest

Paul Camilo Zalamea, Carolina Sarmiento, A. Elizabeth Arnold, Adam S. Davis, Astrid Ferrer, James W. Dalling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous theoretical work has highlighted the potential for natural enemies to mediate the coexistence of species with similar life histories via density-dependent effects on survivorship. For plant pathogens to play this role, they must differ in their ability to infect or induce disease in different host plant species. In tropical forests characterized by high diversity, these effects must extend to phylogenetically closely related species pairs. Mortality at the seed and seedling stage strongly influences the abundance and distribution of tropical tree species, but the host preferences and spatial distributions of fungi are rarely determined. We examined how host species identity, relatedness and seed viability influence the composition of fungal communities associated with seeds of four co-occurring pioneer trees (Cecropia insignis, C. longipes, C. peltata and Jacaranda copaia). Seeds were buried in mesh bags in five common gardens in the understorey of a lowland tropical forest in Panama and retrieved at intervals from 1 to 30 months. A subset of the seeds in each bag was used to determine germination success. One half of each remaining seed was tested for viability; and the other half was used to culture and identify seed-infecting fungi. Seeds were infected by fungi after burial. Although fungal communities differed in viable versus dead seeds, and across burial locations, community composition primarily varied as a function of plant species identity (30.7% of variation in community composition vs. 4.5% for viability and location together), even for congeneric Cecropia species. Phylogenetic reconstruction showed that relatedness of fungi mostly reflected differences between Jacaranda (Bignoniaceae) and Cecropia (Urticaceae). Although the proportion of germinable seeds decreased gradually over time for all species, intraspecific variation in survival was high at the same location (e.g. ranging from 0% to 100% for C. peltata) suggesting variable exposure or susceptibility to seed pathogens. Synthesis. Our study provides evidence under field conditions that congeneric tree species with similar life history traits differ markedly in seed-associated fungal communities when exposed to the same soil-borne fungi. This is a critical first step supporting pathogen-mediated coexistence of closely related tree species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1858-1872
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • Cecropia
  • Jacaranda
  • lowland tropical forests
  • pioneer trees
  • seed pathogens
  • seed persistence
  • seed-associated fungi
  • soil seed bank

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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