Priority effects occur when the order of species arrival affects final community structure. Mutualists often interact with multiple partners in different orders, but if or how priority effects alter interaction outcomes is an open question. In the field, we paired the legume Medicago lupulina with two nodulating strains of Ensifer bacteria that vary in nitrogen-fixing ability. We inoculated plants with strains in different orders and measured interaction outcomes. The first strain to arrive primarily determined plant performance and final relative abundances of rhizobia on roots. Plants that received effective microbes first and ineffective microbes second grew larger than plants inoculated with the same microbes in opposite order. Our results show that mutualism outcomes can be influenced not just by partner identity, but by interaction order. Furthermore, hosts receiving high-quality mutualists early can better tolerate low-quality symbionts later, indicating priority effects may help explain the persistence of ineffective symbionts.
The MedicagoJULY.csv is the main file with all data. The other included file has the data re-arranged (mostly in Mean and SE) for the purpose of making graphs. ReadMe file is included for header meanings and timeline of the experiment.