Publication Details

Liyanage, G. S., Ayre, D. J. & Ooi, M. K. J. (2016). Seedling performance covaries with dormancy thresholds: maintaining cryptic seed heteromorphism in a fire-prone system. Ecology, 97 (11), 3009-3018.


The production of morphologically different seeds or fruits by the same individual plant is known as seed heteromorphism. Such variation is expected to be selected for in disturbance-prone environments to allow germination into inherently variable regeneration niches. However, there are few demonstrations that heteromorphic seed characteristics should be favored by selection or how they may be maintained. In fire-prone ecosystems, seed heteromorphism is found in the temperatures needed to break physical dormancy, with seeds responding to high or low temperatures, ensuring emergence under variable fire-regime-related soil heating. Because of the relationship between dormancy-breaking temperature thresholds and fire severity, we hypothesize that different post-fire resource conditions have selected for covarying seedling traits, which contribute to maintenance of such heteromorphism. Seeds with low thresholds emerge into competitive conditions, either after low-severity fire or in vegetation gaps, and are therefore likely to experience selection for seedling characteristics that make them good competitors. On the other hand, high-temperature-threshold seeds would emerge into less competitive environments, indicative of stand-clearing high-severity fires, and would not experience the same selective forces. We identified high and low-threshold seed morphs via dormancy-breaking heat treatments and germination trials for two study species and compared seed mass and other morphological characteristics between morphs. We then grew seedlings from the two different morphs, with and without competition, and measured growth and biomass allocation as indicators of seedling performance. Seedlings from low-threshold seeds of both species performed better than their high-threshold counterparts, growing more quickly under competitive conditions, confirming that different performance can result from this seed characteristic. Seed mass or appearance did not differ between morphs, indicating that dormancy-breaking temperature threshold variation is a form of cryptic heteromorphism. The potential shown for the selective influence of different post-fire environmental conditions on seedling performance provides evidence of a mechanism for the maintenance of heteromorphic variation in dormancy-breaking temperature thresholds.

Grant Number