Question: What is the role of dispersal, persistent soil seed banks and seedling recruitment in population persistence of fleshy-fruited obligate seeding plant species in fire-prone habitats?
Location: Southeastern Australia.
Methods: We used a long-term study of a shrubby, fleshy-fruited Persoonia species (Proteaceae) to examine (1) seed removal from beneath the canopy of adult plants; (2) seedling recruitment after fire; (3) the magnitude and location of the residual soil seed bank; and (4) the implications for fire management of obligate seeding species. We used demographic sampling techniques combined with Generalised Linear Modelling and regression to quantify population changes over time.
Results: Most of the mature fruits (90%) on the ground below the canopy of plants were removed by Wallabia bicolor (Swamp wallaby) with 88% of seeds extracted from W. bicolor scats viable and dormant. Wallabies play an important role in moving seeds away from parent plants. Their role in occasional long distance dispersal events remains unknown. We detected almost no seed predation in situ under canopies (< 1%). Seedling recruitment was cued to fire, with post-fire seedling densities 6-7 times pre-fire adult densities. After fire, a residual soil seed bank was present, as many seeds (77-100%) remained dormant and viable at a soil depth where successful future seedling emergence is possible (0-5 cm). Seedling survival was high (> 80%) with most mortality within 2 years of emergence. Plant growth averaged 17 cm per year. The primary juvenile period of plants was 7–8 years, within the period of likely return fire intervals in the study area. We predicted that the study population increased some five-fold after the wildfire at the site.
Conclusions: Residual soil seed banks are important, especially in species with long primary juvenile periods, to buffer the populations against the impact of a second fire occurring before the seed bank is replenished.