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Extended seed longevity in the dry state is the basis for the ex situ conservation of ‘orthodox’ seeds. However, even under identical storage conditions there is wide variation in seed life-span between species. Here, the effects of seed traits and environmental conditions at the site of collection on seed longevity is explored for195 wild species from 71 families from environments ranging from cold deserts to tropical forests.Seeds were rapidly aged at elevated temperature and relative humidity (either 45°C and 60% RH or 60°C and 60% RH) and regularly sampled for germination. The time taken in storage for viability to fall to 50% (p50) was determined using Probit analysis and used as a measure of relative seed longevity between species.Across species, p50 at 45°C and 60% RH varied from 0·1 d to 771 d. Endospermic seeds were, in general, shorter lived than non-endospermic seeds and seeds from hot, dry environments were longer lived than those from cool, wet conditions. These relationships remained significant when controlling for the effects of phylogenetic relatedness using phylogenetically independent contrasts. Seed mass and oil content were not correlated with p50.The data suggest that the endospermic seeds of early angiosperms which evolved in forest understorey habitats are short-lived. Extended longevity presumably evolved as a response to climatic change or the invasion of drier areas. The apparent short-lived nature of endospermic seeds from cool wet environments may have implications for re-collection and re-testing strategies in ex situ conservation.