Plant Identity Influences Foliar Fungal Symbionts More Than Elevation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains

Stephanie N. Kivlin, Melanie R. Kazenel, Joshua S. Lynn, D. Lee Taylor, Jennifer A. Rudgers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite colonizing nearly every plant on Earth, foliar fungal symbionts have received little attention in studies on the biogeography of host-associated microbes. Evidence from regional scale studies suggests that foliar fungal symbiont distributions are influenced both by plant hosts and environmental variation in climate and soil resources. However, previous surveys have focused on either one plant host across an environmental gradient or one gradient and multiple plant hosts, making it difficult to disentangle the influence of host identity from the influence of the environment on foliar endophyte communities. We used a culture-based approach to survey fungal symbiont composition in the leaves of nine C3 grass species along replicated elevation gradients in grasslands of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. In these ecosystems, the taxonomic richness and composition of foliar fungal symbionts were mostly structured by the taxonomic identity of the plant host rather than by variation in climate. Plant traits related to size (height and leaf length) were the best predictors of foliar fungal symbiont composition and diversity, and composition did not vary predictably with plant evolutionary history. The largest plants had the most diverse and distinctive fungal communities. These results suggest that across the ~ 300 m elevation range that we sampled, foliar fungal symbionts may indirectly experience climate change by tracking the shifting distributions of plant hosts rather than tracking climate directly.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)688-698
Number of pages11
JournalMicrobial Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019


  • C grass
  • Climate
  • Epichloë
  • Foliar endophytes
  • Horizontally transmitted endophytic fungi
  • Microbiome
  • Mountain ecosystems
  • Plant host


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