Seed survival on experimental dishes in a central European old-growth mixed-species forest – effects of predator guilds, tree masting and small mammal population dynamics

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Predation of tree seeds can be a major factor structuring plant communities. We present a three year study on tree seed survival on experimental dishes in an old-growth forest in central Europe in Austria. We addressed species specific, spatial and temporal aspects of post-dispersal seed predation. Seeds of Norway spruce Picea abies, European beech Fagus sylvatica, and silver fir Abies alba were exposed on dishes in different types of exclosures which allowed access only to specific guilds of seed predators. Removal experiments were carried out in two old-growth forests and a managed forest (macro-sites), including micro-sites with and without cover of ground vegetation. We conducted the experiment in three consecutive years with a mast year of beech and spruce before the first year of the study. The seed removal experiments were combined with live trapping of small mammals being potential seed predators. Our experiments showed a distinctly different impact of different predator guilds on seed survival on the dishes with highest removal rates of seeds from dishes accessible for small mammals. We observed differing preferences of small mammals for the different tree species. Seed survival in different macro- and micro-habitats were highly variable with lower seed survival in old growth forests. In contrast to our assumption, and in contrast to the satiation hypothesis which assumes higher seed survival in and directly after mast years, seed survival was lower in the year following the mast year of beech when a population peak of small mammals occurred and higher in intermast periods when subsequently small mammal population crashed. This suggests a higher importance of sporadic masting shortly after mast years in intermast periods for establishment of forest trees provided that pollination efficiency is high enough in such years. Combined with the high seed mortality observed after the mast year, this corroborates the important role of seed predation for forest dynamics. An altered synchrony or asynchrony of masting of different tree species and changed masting frequencies through climate change may thus lead to strong and non-linear effects on forest dynamics.

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