Nitrogen deposition drives lichen community changes through differential species responses


Correspondence: Johan Olofsson, tel. + 46 90 786 7704, fax + 46 90 786 7664, e-mail:


Nitrogen (N) deposition has increased globally over the last 150 years and further increases are predicted. Epiphytic lichens decline in abundance and diversity in areas with high N loads, and the abundance of lichens decreases along gradients of increased deposition. Thus, although N is an essential nutrient for lichens, excessive loads may be detrimental for them. However, these gradients include many correlated pollutants and the mechanisms behind the decline are thus poorly known. The aim of this study was to assess effects of N deposition, alone, on the epiphytic lichen community composition in a naturally N-poor boreal forest. For this purpose, whole spruce trees were fertilized daily with N at five levels, equivalent to 0.6, 6, 12.5, 25, and 50 kg N ha−1 yr−1, during four consecutive growing seasons (2006–2009), and changes in the abundance of lichens were monitored each autumn from the preceding year (2005). The studied lichen communities were highly dynamic and responded strongly to the environmental perturbation. N deposition detectably altered the direction of succession and reduced the species richness of the epiphytic lichen communities, even at the lowest fertilization application (6 kg N ha−1 yr−1). The simulated N deposition caused significant changes in the abundance of Alectoria sarmentosa, Bryoria spp., and Hypogymnia physodes, which all increased at low N loads and decreased at high loads, but with species-specific optima. The rapid decline of A. sarmentosa may have been caused by the added nitrogen reducing the stability of the lichen thalli, possibly due to increases in the photobiont: mycobiont ratio or parasitic fungal attacks. We conclude that increases in nitrogen availability, per se, could be responsible for the reductions in lichen abundance and diversity observed along deposition gradients, and those community responses may be due to physiological responses of the individual species rather than changes in competitive interactions.