Disturbances Impact on Longevity of Grass Seeds, Semi-Arid South African Rangeland

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Abstract

The effect of plant and soil disturbances on seed density, species richness, and seed longevity of the soil seed bank was quantified for a semi-arid rangeland, over a 5-yr period (2002/2003-2006/2007 growing seasons). The different soil and plant treatments included fire, tillage (intended as a trampling surrogate), and blocked seed rain (simulating heavy grazing). These three experimental factors were combined in a factorial arrangement. Seed responses were evaluated in the soil seed bank before the new seed set, after the first seed production event, and after the second seed production event. Before disturbance (physical impact on the plant and soil), soil seed bank was dominated by early successional species: conversely, aboveground vegetation was mainly dominated by perennial grasses. After only 4 yr of blocked seed rain, seedling emergence of Decreaser grass species ceased totally both in the field and seed bank, with lower effect on Increaser grass species. Emergence of both Decreaser and Increaser grass species decreased in the seed bank with tillage, whereas the opposite occurred in the field. By contrast, tillage increased the emergence of weeds in the seed bank. The decrease in emergence of Decreaser grass species in both seed bank and field was still evident 4 yr after the rangeland was burnt. The grass species Themeda triandra was the most sensitive to fire in terms of seedling emergence. Blocked seed rain treatment significantly decreased (P < 0.05) species richness. Regardless of treatments applied, there was poor similarity between aboveground vegetation and the associated seed bank. Differences in the soil seed bank are likely to reflect manifested properties rather than short-term changes. Several characteristics of seed banks (species composition, seed abundance, and longevity) must be considered in order to understand the dynamics of plant communities following disturbances.

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