Is the post-disturbance composition of a plant population determined by selection for outcrossed seedlings or by the composition of the seedbank?
Seedbanks are expected to buffer populations against disturbances, such as fire, that could alter the genetic composition of smaller, ephemeral adult populations. However, seedling genotypes may be influenced by the spatially heterogeneous nature of both the seedbank and the disturbance (for example, germination may vary with local disturbance) and also by selection acting on germination and post-germination performance. We used microsatellite-DNA surveys of seedlings emerging from the soil-stored seedbanks of Grevillea macleayana after wildfire to compare diversity and spatial structure in seedlings and adults, and through resampling of the seedling data set, to determine whether the resultant adult population reflected the effects of selection or random seedling mortality. The large post-fire seedling cohorts captured the full allelic diversity of the pre-fire adult population. However, we found a mismatch in the genotypic structure of adults and seedlings. Seedlings displayed larger heterozygous deficits than adults; however, over the ensuing 11 years, seedling heterozygosity eventually matched values for the pre-fire adults. Increasing heterozygosity among adults has generally been attributed to heterosis and/or reduction in Wahlund effects via self-thinning. Resampling of early post-fire seedlings to generate samples of equivalent size to survivors at 11 years showed that increases in heterozygosity must be driven by selection favouring outcrossed seed. This finding is important in an evolutionary context but also has implications for the restoration of natural or managed populations where a seedbank is a viable source of recruits.