Physical dormancy in seeds: a game of hide and seek?


Author for correspondence:

Torbjørn Rage Paulsen

Tel: +47 55 58 26 71



  • Historically, ‘physical dormancy’, or ‘hard seededness’, where seeds are prevented from germinating by a water-impermeable seed coat, is viewed as a dormancy mechanism. However, upon water uptake, resumption of metabolism leads to the unavoidable release of volatile by-products, olfactory cues that are perceived by seed predators. Here, we examine the hypothesis that hard seeds are an anti-predator trait that evolved in response to powerful selection by small mammal seed predators.
  • Seeds of two legume species with dimorphic seeds (‘hard’ and ‘soft’), Robinia pseudoacacia and Vicia sativa, were offered to desert hamsters (Phodopus roborovskii) in a series of seed removal studies examining the differences in seed harvest between hard and soft seeds. Volatile compounds emitted by dry and imbibed soft seeds were identified by headspace gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS).
  • Fourteen main volatile compounds were identified, and hamsters readily detected both buried imbibed seeds and an artificial ‘volatile cocktail’ that mimicked the scent of imbibed seeds, but could not detect buried hard or dry soft seeds.
  • We argue that physical dormancy has evolved to hide seeds from mammalian predators. This hypothesis also helps to explain some otherwise puzzling features of hard seeds and has implications for seed dispersal.