1. Disturbance is assumed to be a major driver of plant community composition, but whether similar processes operate on associated soil microbial communities is less known. Based on the assumed trade-off between disturbance tolerance and competiveness, we hypothesize that a severe disturbance applied within a semi-natural grassland would shift the arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungal community towards disturbance-tolerant fungi that are rare in undisturbed soils.
2. We used 454-sequencing of the large subunit rDNA region to characterize AM fungal communities in Plantago lanceolata roots grown in the field for 4 months and exposed either to no disturbance or to severe disturbance where fungi from undisturbed soil were either permitted or prevented from re-colonizing the disturbed area. This allowed for a distinction between AM fungi that survived the disturbance and those that quickly re-colonized after a disturbance. To identify AM fungi that could potentially colonize the experimental plants, we also analysed roots from adjacent, undisturbed vegetation.
3. We found 32 fungal operational taxonomic units (OTUs) distributed across five known AM fungal families. Contrary to our expectations, disturbance did not significantly alter the community composition and OTU richness. Instead, OTU abundances were positively correlated across treatments; i.e., common OTUs in undisturbed soil were also common after the severe disturbance. However, the distribution of OTUs within and between plots was largely unpredictable, with approximately 40% of all sequences within a sample belonging to a single OTU of varying identity. The distribution of two plant species that are often poorly colonized by AM fungi (Dianthus deltoides and Carex arenaria) correlated significantly with the OTU composition, which may indicate that host quality could be an additional driver of fungal communities.
4. Synthesis. Our results suggest that factors other than disturbance drive the relative abundance of OTUs in this grassland and question the long-held assumption that communities shift in a predictable manner after a disturbance event. The reassembly of this fungal community indicates a high community resilience, but substantial local stochasticity and dominance by single OTUs, which could be due to priority effects among abundant AM fungi possessing a similar – and high – degree of disturbance tolerance.