Deer and invasive plant removal alters mycorrhizal fungal communities and soil chemistry: evidence from a long-term field experiment.
The invasive plant, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), has the potential to affect soil microbial communities and ecosystem processes in temperate hardwood forests primarily through the release of allelopathic chemicals into the soil. These forest soils are also often affected (directly and indirectly) by the high abundance of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which can alter plant community composition and productivity. We examined the joint effects of deer and garlic mustard on soil microbial communities, soil nutrients and a native plant species' vital rates in a temperate forest 8 years after initiation of a paired plot deer exclusion/access study where garlic mustard was either removed from half of each plot or remained at ambient level in the other plot half. We examined soil microbial communities using DNA-based techniques and quantified nutrient availability and physicochemical properties. Deer exclusion affected the community structure of AM fungi, particularly when garlic mustard was present, but had no effect on soil chemistry. Garlic mustard removal plots showed no changes for soil fungi, but displayed higher soil carbon content. Interestingly, we found significant changes to native plant vital rates that mirrored soil responses; the presence of garlic mustard led to higher mortality of large, mature plants and reduced native plant cover and biomass. Our data suggest herbivore-plant-soil feedbacks and synergies can interact to negatively affect the soil ecology of forests. Management activities that reduce deer or invasive plant abundance may positively affect soil microbial communities and chemistry in temperate forests.