Soil seed banks confer resilience to savanna grass-layer plants during seasonal disturbance

Kenneth Scott, Samantha Setterfield, Michael Douglas, Alan Andersen

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    An understanding of soil seed bank processes is crucial for understanding vegetation dynamics, particularly in ecosystems experiencing frequent disturbance. This paper examines seed bank dynamics in a tropical savanna in northern Australia, an environment characterised by frequent fire and highly seasonal rainfall. In particular, we examine the contribution of seed bank processes to the high level of resilience shown by grass-layer vegetation in relation to fire. We assess the spatial congruence between seed bank composition and extant vegetation, document temporal variation in the germinable seed bank over the annual dry season, test the effects of laboratory-applied heat and smoke treatments on seed germinability, and determine the effect of experimental fires on seed bank composition. Although dominant species were shared, the composition of the germinable seed bank was significantly different to that of extant vegetation, with approximately half the extant species not being detected in the seed bank. The density and species richness of germinable seeds was significantly greater in the late dry season than the early dry season, with annual grasses showing particularly high levels of seed dormancy in the early dry season. The density and species richness of germinable seeds in the seed bank was significantly enhanced by laboratory-applied treatments of smoke and especially heat, driven by the response of legumes. However, fire had no significant effect on the density or species richness of germinable seeds in the field, indicating soil temperatures during fire were too low to overcome physical dormancy, or burial was too deep to experience adequate heating or smoke exposure. Our results provide a mechanistic understanding of the persistence of annual grasses and forbs in an environment subject to frequent fire and highly seasonal rainfall, and, together with the sprouting capacity of perennial grasses, explain the high resilience of savanna grass-layer plants in relation to fire. � 2010 Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)202-210
    Number of pages9
    JournalActa Oecologica
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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