Priority effects are an important ecological force shaping biotic communities and ecosystem processes, in which the establishment of early colonists alters the colonization success of later-arriving organisms via competitive exclusion and habitat modification. However, we do not understand which biotic and abiotic conditions lead to strong priority effects and lasting historical contingencies. Using saprotrophic fungi in a model leaf decomposition system, we investigated whether compositional and functional consequences of initial colonization were dependent on initial colonizer traits, resource availability or a combination thereof. To test these ideas, we factorially manipulated leaf litter biochemistry and initial fungal colonist identity, quantifying subsequent community composition, using neutral genetic markers, and community functional characteristics, including enzyme potential and leaf decay rates. During the first 3 months, initial colonist respiration rate and physiological capacity to degrade plant detritus were significant determinants of fungal community composition and leaf decay, indicating that rapid growth and lignolytic potential of early colonists contributed to altered trajectories of community assembly. Further, initial colonization on oak leaves generated increasingly divergent trajectories of fungal community composition and enzyme potential, indicating stronger initial colonizer effects on energy-poor substrates. Together, these observations provide evidence that initial colonization effects, and subsequent consequences on litter decay, are dependent upon substrate biochemistry and physiological traits within a regional species pool. Because microbial decay of plant detritus is important to global C storage, our results demonstrate that understanding the mechanisms by which initial conditions alter priority effects during community assembly may be key to understanding the drivers of ecosystem-level processes. © 2015 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Journal: Molecular ecology