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Responses of high-altitude graminoids and soil fungi to 20 years of experimental warming.

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High-elevation ecosystems are expected to be particularly sensitive to climate warming because cold temperatures constrain biological processes. Deeper understanding of the consequences of climate change will come from studies that consider not only the direct effects of temperature on individual species, but also the indirect effects of altered species interactions. Here we show that 20 years of experimental warming has changed the species composition of graminoid (grass and sedge) assemblages in a subalpine meadow of the Rocky Mountains, USA, by increasing the frequency of sedges and reducing the frequency of grasses. Because sedges typically have weak interactions with mycorrhizal fungi relative to grasses, lowered abundances of arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi or other root-inhabiting fungi could underlie warming-induced shifts in plant species composition. However, warming increased root colonization by AM fungi for two grass species, possibly because AM fungi can enhance plant water uptake when soils are dried by experimental warming. Warming had no effect on AM fungal colonization of three other graminoids. Increased AM fungal colonization of the dominant shrub Artemisia tridentata provided further grounds for rejecting the hypothesis that reduced AM fungi caused the shift from grasses to sedges. Non-AM fungi (including dark septate endophytes) also showed general increases with warming. Our results demonstrate that lumping grasses and sedges when characterizing plant community responses can mask significant shifts in the responses of primary producers, and their symbiotic fungi, to climate change.

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