Interactions among Species with Contrasting Dispersal Modes Explain Distributions for Epiphytic Lichens

30 September 2014

Belinchon, Rocio; Yahr, Rebecca; Ellis, Christopher

Understanding how the biodiversity response to climate change will be modified at ecological scales, e.g. by species interactions, is a major challenge. Lichen epiphytes – the close interdependent relationship between a heterotrophic fungus and photosynthetic partner (photobiont) – are used here to explore how interaction regimes (between lichen species, and between lichens and their photobionts) explain distribution patterns along spatial climatic gradients. To do this we tested field evidence for the ‘core-fringe hypothesis’, which proposes a facilitative interaction; stating that sexually-reproducing and spore-dispersed lichens with a requirement for resynthesis with a compatible photobiont (Nostoc), are facilitated by the prior establishment of asexual lichens which disperse both the fungus and photobiont together. We used two closely related Nephroma species which differ in their reproductive mode – N. laevigatum (sexual spore-dispersed) and N. parile (asexual) – and compared their occurrence along a bioclimatic gradient to local habitat factors, including the co-occurrence of asexual lichens which have shared specificity for compatible Nostoc genotypes. The results showed that: 1. N. laevigatum is significantly more likely to occur on trees that have already been colonised by asexual lichens with shared specificity for Nostoc, supporting the core-fringe hypothesis, while 2. N. parile is independent of this association (strengthening the core-fringe hypothesis), with its response to a precipitation gradient modified by microhabitat factors. This positive test for the core-fringe hypothesis demonstrates how interaction regimes can fundamentally alter expectations under climate change. There is an assumption that spore-dispersed lichen species could more easily track their suitable bioclimatic space through fragmented habitat, compared to asexual species with larger and heavier propagules. In contrast, the establishment of spore-dispersed lichen epiphytes into new habitat may be limited by the dispersal rates of asexual species, which act as key facilitators.