Impact of severe fire on ectomycorrhizal fungi of whitebark pine seedlings
Trusty, Paul Evan
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Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a threatened keystone species in subalpine zones of Western North America critical to watersheds and maintenance of high elevation biodiversity. Pine nuts are an important food for wildlife including grizzly bears. Whitebark pine stands have experienced losses up to 90% due to white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetles and replacement due to fire suppression. Active management strategies include letting natural fires burn or applying prescribed fires to clear understory fir, stimulate seedling regeneration and provide openings for nutcrackers to plant seeds. However, post-fire plantings of rust-resistant seedlings have low survival rates. This study evaluated the impact of fire on the mycorrhizal fungi which are obligate mutualists with whitebark pine and to address management concerns. The 2001 Fridley fire burned a portion of a mature whitebark pine forest and a year later 20,000 seedlings were planted. After four years, natural and planted seedlings, on the burn and controls in the adjacent unburned forest were well colonized by mycorrhizal fungi (>90%) although a portion may be nursery E-strain. The severe burn reduced mycorrhizal diversity 27% on natural and planted seedlings and caused a significant shift in mycorrhizal species (determined by ITS sequencing, principal component analysis and multidimensional scaling). Seedlings in the burn (natural and planted) were dominated by Pseudotomentella nigra, Wilcoxina species and Amphinema byssoides while natural seedlings in unburned forest hosted mainly Cenococcum geophilum and Piloderma byssinum. Differences were minimal between planted and natural seedlings in the burn, but roots of planted pines retained the container shape. The functional significance of a species shift to seedling survival is not yet known. Seedlings in all treatments hosted suilloid fungi (Rhizopogon, Suillus) important in pine establishment. A greenhouse bioassay of burned and unburned soils using nursery seedlings did not reflect the full diversity found in the field study, but did reveal suilloid fungi indicating that bioassays can be used as a pre-planting assessment tool for this group. Despite high mycorrhization and availability of suilloids, seedling survival was low (22-42%) suggesting the timing/type of mycorrhization and/or other biotic/abiotic factors are a concern.