Highly diverse and spatially heterogeneous mycorrhizal symbiosis in a rare epiphyte is unrelated to broad biogeographic or environmental features



Symbiotic interactions are common in nature. In dynamic or degraded environments, the ability to associate with multiple partners (i.e. broad specificity) may enable species to persist through fluctuations in the availability of any particular partner. Understanding how species interactions vary across landscapes is necessary to anticipate direct and indirect consequences of environmental degradation on species conservation. We asked whether mycorrhizal symbiosis by populations of a rare epiphytic orchid (Epidendrum firmum) is related to geographic or environmental heterogeneity. The latter would suggest that interactions are governed by environmental conditions rather than historic isolation of populations and/or mycorrhizal fungi. We used DNA-based methods to identify mycorrhizal fungi from eleven E. firmum populations in Costa Rica. We used molecular and phylogenetic analyses to compare associations. Epidendrum firmum exhibited broad specificity, associating with diverse mycorrhizal fungi, including six Tulasnellaceae molecular operational taxonomic units (MOTUs), five Sebacinales MOTUs and others. Notably, diverse mycorrhizal symbioses formed in disturbed pasture and roadside habitats. Mycorrhizal fungi exhibited significant similarity within populations (spatial and phylogenetic autocorrelation) and significant differences among populations (phylogenetic community dissimilarity). However, mycorrhizal symbioses were not significantly associated with biogeographic or environmental features. Such unexpected heterogeneity among populations may result from complex combinations of fine-scale environmental factors and macro-evolutionary patterns of change in mycorrhizal specificity. Thus, E. firmum exhibits broad specificity and the potential for opportunistic associations with diverse fungi. We suggest that these characteristics could confer symbiotic assurance when mycorrhizal fungi are stochastically available, which may be crucial in dynamic or disturbed habitats such as tropical forest canopies.