Background Seeds adjust their germination based on conditions experienced before and after dispersal. Post-dispersal cues are expected to be more accurate predictors of offspring environments, and thus offspring success, than pre-dispersal cues. Therefore, germination responses to conditions experienced during seed maturation may be expected to be superseded by responses to conditions experienced during seed imbibition. In taxa of disturbed habitats, neighbours frequently reduce the performance of germinants. This leads to the hypotheses that a vegetative canopy will reduce germination in such taxa, and that a vegetative canopy experienced during seed imbibition will over-ride germination responses to a canopy experienced during seed maturation, since it is a more proximal cue of immediate competition. These hypotheses were tested here in Arabidopsis thaliana.
Methods Seeds were matured under a simulated canopy (green filter) or white light. Fresh (dormant) seeds were imbibed in the dark, white light or canopy at two temperatures (10 or 22 °C), and germination proportions were recorded. Germination was also recorded in after-ripened (less dormant) seeds that were induced into secondary dormancy and imbibed in the dark at each temperature, either with or without brief exposure to red and far-red light.
Key Results Unexpectedly, a maturation canopy expanded the conditions that elicited germination, even as seeds lost and regained dormancy. In contrast, an imbibition canopy impeded or had no effect on germination. Maturation under a canopy did not modify germination responses to red and far-red light. Seed maturation under a canopy masked genetic variation in germination.
Conclusions The results challenge the hypothesis that offspring will respond more strongly to their own environment than to that of their parents. The observed relaxation of germination requirements caused by a maturation canopy could be maladaptive for offspring by disrupting germination responses to light cues after dispersal. Alternatively, reduced germination requirements could be adaptive by allowing seeds to germinate faster and reduce competition in later stages even though competition is not yet present in the seedling environment. The masking of genetic variation by maturation under a canopy, moreover, could impede evolutionary responses to selection on germination.