Soil warming increases plant species richness but decreases germination from the alpine soil seed bank


Correspondence: Gemma Hoyle, tel. +61 02 6125 8858, fax: +61 02 6125 5573, e-mail:


Global warming is occurring more rapidly above the treeline than at lower elevations and alpine areas are predicted to experience above average warming in the future. Temperature is a primary factor in stimulating seed germination and regulating changes in seed dormancy status. Thus, plant regeneration from seed will be crucial to the persistence, migration and post disturbance recruitment of alpine plants in future climates. Here, we present the first assessment of the impact of soil warming on germination from the persistent alpine soil seed bank. Contrary to expectations, soil warming lead to reduced overall germination from the soil seed bank. However, germination response to soil temperature was species specific such that total species richness actually increased by nine with soil warming. We further explored the system by assessing the prevalence of seed dormancy and germination response to soil disturbance, the frequency of which is predicted to increase under climate change. Seeds of a significant proportion of species demonstrated physiological dormancy mechanisms and germination of several species appeared to be intrinsically linked to soil disturbance. In addition, we found no evidence of subalpine species and little evidence of exotic weed species in the soil, suggesting that the soil seed bank will not facilitate their invasion of the alpine zone. In conclusion, changes in recruitment via the alpine soil seed bank can be expected under climate change, as a result of altered dormancy alleviation and germination cues. Furthermore, the alpine soil seed bank, and the species richness therein, has the potential to help maintain local species diversity, support species range shift and moderate species dominance. Implications for alpine management and areas for further study are also discussed.