Questions: How do arbuscular mycorrhiza and earthworms affect the structure and diversity of a ruderal plant community? Is the establishment success of newcomer plants enhanced by these soil organisms and their interactions?
Methods: We grew a native ruderal plant community composed of different functional groups (grasses, legumes and forbs) in the presence and absence of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and endogeic earthworms in mesocosms. We introduced seeds of five, mainly exotic, plant species from the same functional groups after a disturbance simulating mowing. The effects of the soil organisms on the native ruderal plant community and seedling establishment of the newcomer plants were assessed.
Results: After disturbance, the total above-ground regrowth of the native plant community was not affected by the soil organisms. However, AMF increased plant diversity and shoot biomass of forbs, but decreased shoot biomass of grasses of the native plant community. Earthworms led to a reduction in total root biomass. Establishment of the introduced newcomer plants increased in the presence of AMF and earthworms. Especially, seedling establishment of the introduced non-native legume Lupinus polyphyllus and the native forb Plantago lanceolata was promoted in the presence of AMF and earthworms, respectively. The endogeic earthworms gained more weight in the presence of AMF and led to increased extraradical AMF hyphal length in soil. However, earthworms did not seem to modify the effect of AMF on the plant community.
Conclusion: The present study shows the importance of mutualistic soil organisms in mediating the establishment success of newcomer plants in a native plant community. Mutualistic soil organisms lead to changes in the structure and diversity of the native plant community and might promote newcomer plants, including exotic species.