• Depth distribution;
  • grassland communities;
  • seed bank;
  • seed mass

1. We investigated the vertical distribution of seeds in the soil, using data from nine studies in five European countries. We discovered significant correlations between seed shape and distribution in the soil.

2. The classification of the longevity of seeds of plant species has been improved by the introduction of a ‘longevity index’, expressing on a continuous scale the most recent information on seed longevity represented as the proportion of non-transient seed bank records in the database of Thompson et al. (1997). Remarkably, no difference in seed longevity was found if the index was based on direct observations only when compared with the index based on the complete data set where indirect, ‘depth-derived’ observations were included.

3. Seed longevity was best estimated using a multiple regression model with an integrated measure of seed size and shape and depth distribution of seeds.

4. The shape of seeds, known to be a consistent character of species, was shown to be constant within species, whereas depth distribution of seeds was highly variable among sites. This is consistent with the variability of seed longevity found in published seed bank data.