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  1. Abstract

    Understanding the origins and maintenance of host specificity, or why horizontally‐acquired symbionts associate with some hosts but not others, remains elusive. In this study, we explored whether patterns of host specificity in foliar fungal endophytes, a guild of highly diverse fungi that occur within the photosynthetic tissues of all major plant lineages, were related to characteristics of the plant community. We comprehensively sampled all plant host species within a single community and tested the relationship between plant abundance or plant evolutionary relatedness and metrics of endophyte host specificity. We quantified host specificity with methods that considered the total endophyte community per plant host (i.e., multivariate methods) along with species‐based methods (i.e., univariate metrics) that considered host specificity from the perspective of each endophyte. Univariate host specificity metrics quantified plant alpha‐diversity (structural specificity), plant beta‐diversity (beta‐specificity), and plant phylogenetic diversity (phylogenetic specificity) per endophyte. We standardized the effect sizes of univariate host specificity metrics to randomized distributions to avoid spurious correlations between host specificity metrics and endophyte abundance. We found that more abundant plant species harbored endophytes that occupied fewer plant species (higher structural specificity) and were consistently found in the same plant species across the landscape (higher beta‐specificity). There was no relationship between plant phylogenetic distance and endophyte community dissimilarity. We still found that endophyte community composition significantly varied among plant species, families, and major groups, supporting a plant identity effect. In particular, endophytes in angiosperm lineages associated with narrower phylogenetic breadths of plants (higher phylogenetic specificity) compared to endophytes within conifer and fern lineages. Overall, an effect of plant species abundance may help explain why horizontally‐transmitted endophytes vary geographically within host species ranges.

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  2. Summary

    Foliar fungal endophytes are one of the most diverse guilds of symbiotic fungi found in the photosynthetic tissues of every plant lineage, but it is unclear how plant environments and leaf resource availability shape their diversity.

    We explored correlations between leaf nutrient availability and endophyte diversity amongPinus muricataandVaccinium ovatumplants growing across a soil nutrient gradient spanning a series of coastal terraces in Mendocino, California.

    Endophyte richness decreased in plants with higher leaf nitrogen‐to‐phosphorus ratios for both host species, but increased with sodium, which may be toxic to fungi at high concentrations. Isolation frequency, a proxy of fungal biomass, was not significantly predicted by any of the same leaf constituents in the two plant species.

    We propose that stressed plants can exhibit both low foliar nutrients or high levels of toxic compounds, and that both of these stress responses predict endophyte species richness. Stressful conditions that limit growth of fungi may increase their diversity due to the suppression of otherwise dominating species. Differences between the host species in their endophyte communities may be explained by host specificity, leaf phenology, or microclimates.

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