EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Carbon and nitrogen exchange between trees and mycorrhizal fungi at treeline ecotone

Boaz Hilman1, Emily Solly2, Ivano Brunner3, Susan Trumbore3, and Frank Hagedorn1
Boaz Hilman et al.
  • 1Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Department of Biogeochemical Processes, Jena, Germany (
  • 2ETH Zurich, Sustainable Agroecosystems Group, Department of Environmental System Science, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 3Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, Birmensdorf, Switzerland

The formation of high elevation treelines is thought to result from direct low-temperature growth limitation, but the in-direct role of nitrogen (N) in modifying growth has rarely been evaluated. Slow N mineralization rates in cold soils may push trees to rely more on N supplied by symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. Here, we investigated the carbon (C) and N exchange between trees and mycorrhizal fungi along an Alpine treeline ecotone using bomb 14C and natural abundance isotopes (13C and 15N). We collected fine roots, branches, and needles from two tree species (Larix decidua L. and Pinus mugo spp. uncinata Ramond) and sporocarps of mycorrhizal and free-living (saprotrophic) fungal genera. 14C measurements demonstrated that mycorrhizal fungi rely on new photo-assimilates derived from fine roots, while saprotrophic fungi feed on several years old C (4-10 yr). The C transfer root-fungi seems to have isotopic fractionation that enriches the fungi with 13C in 1-5‰. Mycorrhizal fungi had higher δ15N values and C:N ratio than saprotrophic fungi. Assuming that the two fungi types share the same N source in the soil, the 15N enrichment and the lower N concentration of the mycorrhizal fungi could be explained through preferential transfer of 14N to the hosting trees. The δ15N in the trees generally decreased with increasing elevation, suggesting a greater reliance on N supplied by mycorrhizal fungi in colder soils. However, abrupt increase in the Larix δ15N at the treeline suggests opening of the N cycle for this deciduous tree species, either by a decreasing N demand of slow-growing trees or a reduced competition for N with other plants. Overall, our results indicate that in cold treeline ecotones the sources and availabilities of soil N have a key influence on determing the N uptake pathways of trees and consequently plant growth.

How to cite: Hilman, B., Solly, E., Brunner, I., Trumbore, S., and Hagedorn, F.: Carbon and nitrogen exchange between trees and mycorrhizal fungi at treeline ecotone, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-5410,, 2023.