Plant–soil feedbacks shift from negative to positive with decreasing light in forest understory species


  • Corresponding Editor: P. H. Templer.


Net pairwise plant–soil feedbacks (PSF) may be an important factor structuring plant communities, yet the influence of abiotic context on PSF is not yet understood. Abiotic factors such as light availability can alter plant–soil interactions, potentially resulting in strong context dependence of PSF. Here, we present an experiment in which we measured whole-soil net pairwise feedbacks amongst six common forest understory species across a gradient of light availability. Light treatments were imposed throughout both phases (the conditioning phase and the response phase) of the feedback experiment. Across the plant community, PSF shifted from negative at high light availability to weakly positive under low light (P = 0.013). Differences in the biomass of plants during the conditioning phase did not fully explain light-imposed differences in feedbacks, indicating that reduced light availability qualitatively changes the nature of PSF rather than simply weakening feedbacks by reducing plant growth. Results indicate that abiotic context can fundamentally alter the role of PSF in structuring plant communities.