Spatiotemporal heterogeneity in precipitation patterns explain population-level germination strategies in an edaphic specialist

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Background and Aims Many locally endemic species in biodiversity hotspots are restricted to edaphic conditions that are fixed in the landscape, limiting their potential to track climate change through dispersal. Instead, such species experience strong selection for germination strategies that can track suitable conditions through time. Germination strategies were compared among populations across the geographic range of a California vernal pool annual, Lasthenia fremontii. Local germination strategies were tested to determine the associations with geographic variation in precipitation patterns.

Methods This study evaluated patterns of seed germination, dormancy and mortality in response to simulated variation in the timing, amount and duration of the first autumn precipitation event using seeds from six populations that span a geographic gradient in precipitation. Next, it was tested whether the germination strategies of different populations can be predicted by historical precipitation patterns that characterize each site.

Key Results A significant positive relationship was observed between the historical variability in autumn precipitation and the extent of dormancy in a population. Marginal populations, with histories of the most extreme but constant autumn precipitation levels, expressed the lowest dormancy levels. Populations from sites with historically higher levels of autumn precipitation tended to germinate faster, but this tendency was not statistically significant.

Conclusions Germination in L. fremontii is cued by the onset of the first rains that characterize the beginning of winter in California’s Great Central Valley. However, populations differ in how fast they germinate and the fraction of seeds that remain dormant when germination cues occur. The results suggest that seed dormancy may be a key trait for populations to track increasingly drier climates predicted by climate change models. However, the low dormancy and high mortality levels observed among seeds of the southernmost, driest populations make them most vulnerable to local extinction.

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