DIVERSITY, HOST AFFINITY, AND DISTRIBUTION OF SEED-INFECTING FUNGI: A CASE STUDY WITH CECROPIA
Recruitment limitation has been proposed as an important mechanism contributing to the maintenance of tropical tree diversity. For pioneer species, infection by fungi significantly reduces seed survival in soil, potentially influencing both recruitment success and adult distributions. We examined fresh seeds of four sympatric Cecropia species for evidence of fungal infection, buried seeds for five months in common gardens below four C. insignis crowns in central Panama, and measured seed survival and fungal infection of inviable seeds. Seed survival varied significantly among species and burial sites, and with regard to local (Panama) vs. foreign (Costa Rica) maternal seed sources. Fresh seeds contained few cultivable fungi, but >80% of soil-incubated seeds were infected by diverse Ascomycota, including putative pathogens, saprophytes, and endophytes. From 220 isolates sequenced for the nuclear internal transcribed spacer region (ITS), 26 of 73 unique genotypes were encountered more than once. Based on the most common genotypes, fungal communities demonstrate host affinity and are structured at the scale of individual crowns. Similarity among fungal communities beneath a given crown was significantly greater than similarity among isolates found under different crowns. However, the frequency of rare species suggests high fungal diversity and fine-scale spatial heterogeneity. These results reveal complex plant–fungal interactions in soil and provide a first indication of how seed survival in tropical forests may be affected by fungal community composition.