Soil seed bank recovery occurs more rapidly than expected in semi-arid Mediterranean gypsum vegetation

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Abstract

Background and Aims

Seed banks are critical in arid ecosystems and ensure the persistence of species. Despite the importance of seed banks, knowledge about their formation and the extent to which a seed bank can recover after severe perturbation remains scarce. If undisturbed, soil seed banks reflect a long vegetation history; therefore, we would expect that new soil seed banks and those of undisturbed soils require long periods to become similar with respect to both density and composition. In contrast, if soil seed banks are only a short- to mid-term reservoir in which long-term accumulation constitutes only a tiny fraction, they will recover rapidly from the vegetation. To shed light on this question, we evaluated seed bank formation in a semi-arid gypsum community.

Methods

Soils from 300 plots were replaced with sterilized soil in an undisturbed semi-arid Mediterranean community. Seasonal changes in seed bank density and composition were monitored for 3 years by comparing paired sterilized and control soil samples at each plot.

Key Results

Differences in seed bank density between sterilized and control soil disappeared after 18 months. The composition of sterilized seed banks was correlated with that of the control plots from the first sampling date, and both were highly correlated with vegetation. Nearly 24 % of the seed bank density could be attributed to secondary dispersal. Most seeds died before emergence (66·41–71·33 %), whereas the rest either emerged (14·08–15·48 %) or persisted in the soil (14·59–18·11 %).

Conclusions

Seed banks can recover very rapidly even under the limiting and stressful conditions of semi-arid environments. This recovery is based mainly on the seed rain at small scales together with secondary dispersal from intact seed banks in the vicinity. These results emphasize the relevance of processes occurring on short spatial scales in determining community structure.

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