Questions: How does disturbance and successional age influence richness, size and composition of the soil seed bank? What is the potential contribution of the soil seed bank to the plant community composition on sites differing in their successional age or disturbance intensity?
Location: Experimental Botanical Garden of Göttingen University, central Germany.
Methods: Above-ground vegetation and soil seed bank were studied on formerly arable fields in a 36-year-old permanent plot study with five disturbance intensities, ranging from yearly ploughing via mowing to long-term uninterrupted succession. We compared species compositions, seed densities and functional features of the seed bank and above-ground vegetation by using several methods in parallel.
Results: The seed bank was mainly composed of early successional species typical of strongly disturbed habitats. The difference between seed bank composition and above-ground vegetation decreased with increasing disturbance intensity. The species of greatest quantitative importance in the seed bank was the non-native forb Solidago canadensis.
Conclusions: The ability of a plant community to regenerate from the soil seed bank dramatically decreases with increasing time since abandonment (successional age) and with decreasing disturbance intensity. The present study underlines that plant species typical of grasslands and woodlands are limited by dispersal capacity, owing to low capacity for accumulation of seeds in the soil and the fact that most species do not build up persistent seed banks. Rare and target species were almost absent from the seed bank and will, after local elimination, depend on reintroduction for continuation of their presence.