Fungal communities and functional guilds shift along an elevational gradient in the southern Appalachian Mountains
Nitrogen deposition alters forest ecosystems particularly in high elevation, montane habitats where nitrogen deposition is greatest and continues to increase. We collected soils across an elevational (788–1940 m) gradient, encompassing both abiotic (soil chemistry) and biotic (vegetation community) gradients, at eight locations in the southern Appalachian Mountains of southwestern North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. We measured soil chemistry (total N, C, extractable PO4, soil pH, cation exchange capacity [ECEC], percent base saturation [% BS]) and dissected soil fungal communities using ITS2 metabarcode Illumina MiSeq sequencing. Total soil N, C, PO4, % BS, and pH increased with elevation and plateaued at approximately 1400 m, whereas ECEC linearly increased and C/N decreased with elevation. Fungal communities differed among locations and were correlated with all chemical variables, except PO4, whereas OTU richness increased with total N. Several ecological guilds (i.e., ectomycorrhizae, saprotrophs, plant pathogens) differed in abundance among locations; specifically, saprotroph abundance, primarily attributable to genus Mortierella, was positively correlated with elevation. Ectomycorrhizae declined with total N and soil pH and increased with total C and PO4 where plant pathogens increased with total N and decreased with total C. Our results demonstrate significant turnover in taxonomic and functional fungal groups across elevational gradients which facilitate future predictions on forest ecosystem change in the southern Appalachians as nitrogen deposition rates increase and regional temperature and precipitation regimes shift.