Can arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi from non-invaded montane ecosystems facilitate the growth of alien trees?
It is generally assumed that recruitment and expansion of alien species along elevation gradients are constrained by climate. But, if plants are not fully constrained by climate, their expansion could be facilitated or hindered by other factors such as biotic interactions. Here, we assessed the composition of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) in soils along an elevation gradient (i.e. 900 m, 1600 m, 2200 m and 2700 m a.s.l.) through a fungal DNA meta-barcoding approach. In addition, we studied in the greenhouse the effects of AMF on growth and phosphorous (P) nutrition of seedlings of the alien trees Gleditsia triacanthos, Ligustrum lucidum and Pyracantha angustifolia cultivated in soils from those elevations, spanning the elevation at which they already form monospecific stands (below 1450 m a.s.l.) and higher elevations, above their current range of distribution in montane ecosystems of Central Argentina. For comparison, we also included in the experiment the dominant native tree Lithraea molleoides that historically occurs below 1300 m a.s.l. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal community composition showed strong community turnover with increasing elevation. The effects of these AMF communities on plant growth and nutrition differed among native and alien trees. While P nutrition in alien species' seedlings was generally enhanced by AMF along the whole gradient, the native species benefited only from AMF that occur in soils from the elevation corresponding to its current altitudinal range of distribution. These results suggest that AMF might foster upper range expansion of these invasive trees over non-invaded higher elevations.