Plant communities bank against drought

Many plants shed their young embryos (seeds) into the soil where they may accumulate in a dormant (non-growth) state over years before germinating (resuming growth and development). Ecologists describe this collection of seeds as a seed bank.  Marina LaForgia describes how scientists were able to germinate and grow to maturity some 32,000 year old Silene stenophylla seeds that was stashed, probably by an ancient squirrel, in the permafrost! With increased climatic variation predicted by most climate models, she wanted to know how environmental variability might affect germination of particular groups of species within a community.  In addition, she and her colleagues recognized that most ecological studies investigate community responses to disturbances by looking at the aboveground species.  It stands to reason that we should consider the below-surface seed bank as a window to how a community might respond in the future.


Some seedlings coming up from the seed bank. Credit:Marina LaForgia.

Seed banks can be viewed as a bet-hedging strategy that spreads out germination over several (or many) years to reduce the probability of catastrophic population decline in response to one severe disturbance, such as drought, flood or fire. In some California annual grassland communities, species diversity is dominated by annual forbs – nonwoody flowering plants that are not grasses. Many forbs produce seeds that can lie dormant in the seed banks for several years. Though these forbs are the most diverse group, there are also about 15 species of exotic annual grasses that dominate the landscape in abundance and cover. These grasses dominate because they produce up to 60,000 seeds per m2, they grow very quickly, and they build up a layer of thatch that suppresses native forbs. However, seeds from these grasses cannot lie dormant in the seed bank for very long.



Area of field site dominated by Delphinium (purple flower) and Lasthenia (yellow flower).  Looking closely you can also see some tall grasses rising. Credit Marina LaForgia.

How is drought affecting these two major components of the plant community? LaForgia and her colleagues answered this question by collecting seeds from a northern California grassland at the University of California McLaughlin Natural Reserve in fall 2012 (beginning of the drought) and fall 2014 (near the end of the drought). They used a 5-cm diameter 10-cm deep cylindrical sampler  to collect soil and associated seeds from 80 different plots.  The researchers also used these same plots to estimate aboveground-cover, and to identify the aboveground species that were present. The research team germinated and identified more than 11,000 seeds.


Plants germinating in the greenhouse. Credit Marina LaForgia.

The researchers knew from previous work on aboveground vegetation that exotic annual grasses declined very sharply in response to drought.  In contrast, the native forbs did relatively well, in part depending on their specific leaf area (SLA) – a measure of relative leaf size, with low SLA plants conserving water more efficiently. It seemed reasonable that these same patterns would be reflected belowground. Recall that most grass seeds are incapable of extended dormancy, while many forbs can remain dormant for several years. Consequently, LaForgia and her colleagues expected that grass abundance in the seed bank would decline more sharply than would forb abundance. In addition, they expected that high SLA forbs would not do as well as low SLA forbs during drought.

The researchers discovered very sharp differences between the two groups over the course of the drought. Exotic annual grasses declined sharply in the seed bank, while native annual forb abundance tripled.  Aboveground cover of grasses declined considerably, while aboveground cover of forbs increased modestly.  Clearly the exotic grasses were suffering from the drought, while the forbs were doing quite well.


(a) Seed bank abundance of grasses (red circles) and forbs (blue triangles) at beginning of drought (2012) and near end of drought (2014). (b) Percent cover of grasses (red circles) and forbs (blue triangles) at beginning of drought (2012) and near end of drought (2014). Data are based on samples from 80 plots. Error bars indicate one standard error.

We can see these differences on an individual species basis, with most of the grasses declining modestly or sharply in abundance, while most of the forbs increased.


Mean change in seed bank abundance per species based on 15 exotic grass species and 81 native forb species.

It is not surprising that the grasses do so poorly during the drought.  Presumably, less water causes poorer germination, growth, survival and seed production.  In addition, because grass seeds have a low capacity for dormancy, grass abundance will tend to decrease in the seed bank very quickly with such a low infusion of new seeds.

But why are the forbs actually doing better with less water available to them?  One explanation is that grass abundance and cover declined sharply, causing the forbs to experience reduced competition with grasses that might otherwise inhibit their growth, development and reproductive success. The tripling of native forbs in the seed bank was much greater than the 14% increase in aboveground forb cover.  The researchers reason that the drought caused many of the forb seeds to remain dormant, leading to them building up in the seed bank. This was particularly the case for low SLA forbs, which increased much more than did high SLA forbs in the seed bank.

We can understand exotic grass behavior in the context of their place of origin – the Mediterranean basin, which tends to have wet winters.  In that environment, natural selection favored individuals that germinated quickly, grew fast and made lots of babies. Since their introduction to California in the mid 1800s, 2014 was the driest year on record.  It will be fascinating to see if these exotic grasses can recover when, and if, wetter conditions return.  Can we bank on it?

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is LaForgia, M.L., Spasojevic, M.J., Case, E.J., Latimer, A.M. and Harrison, S.P., 2018. Seed banks of native forbs, but not exotic grasses, increase during extreme drought. Ecology99 (4): 896-903. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.