Stowaway fungi hitch a ride with birds to be with their plant partners

For the first time, scientists have shown that fungal hitchhikers use birds to travel to and colonise new territories with their plant partners.

In a study published in New Phytologist, the researchers provide the first evidence that birds don’t just carry birds to new places, but their fungal partners too. They found what they were looking for in bird poo.

Rubus ulmifolius, an example of one of the plants cultivated from bird droppings.
Photo by Manel, CC BY-ND 2.0

For the study, the team collected numerous bird droppings, and attempted to grow the seeds they contained. A total of 54 plant seedlings from six species emerged from 34 bird droppings. Some of the plants that germinated were already colonised by fungi – revealing that birds carry both plans and their fungal partners to new areas, often over long distances.

Ficedula hypoleuca (Pied flycatcher) – an example of one of the birds sampled in the study. Photo by Edwyn AndertonCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Many plants form close relationships with a group of fungi called the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. These symbiotic relationships benefit both the plant and the fungus. Scientists have long thought that sharing the same transport mechanism would give plants that grow in symbiosis with fungi an advantage. This is the first time that the role of birds in dispersing both partners has been confirmed.

“This is a fundamental piece of the puzzle to understand the global distribution of mycorrhizal fungi and the colonisation of remote territories by plants and associated fungi.”

– lead author Dr Marta Correia, University of Coimbra, Portugal

Read the paper: Correia, M., Heleno, R., da Silva, L. P., Costa, J. M. and Rodríguez‐Echeverría, S. (2019) First evidence for the joint dispersal of mycorrhizal fungi and plant diaspores by birds. New Phytologist. doi: 10.1111/nph.15571

Dr Mike Whitfield
Development Coordinator
New Phytologist Trust

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