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Fire-released seed dormancy

Many plants concentrate their seedling recruitment after the passage of a fire. This is because postfire conditions are especially optimal for germination and establishment of many species as fires create extensive vegetation gaps that have high resource availability, minimal competition, and low pathogen load. Thus we propose that fireprone ecosystems create ideal conditions for the selection of seed dormancy as fire provides a mechanism for dormancy release and optimal conditions for germination [1]. We compiled data from a wide range of fire-related germination experiments for species in different ecosystems across the globe and identified four dormancy syndromes: heat-released (physical) dormancy, smoke-released (physiological) dormancy, non-fire-released dormancy, and non-dormancy. In fireprone ecosystems, fire, in the form of heat and/or chemical by-products (collectively termed ‘smoke’), are the predominant stimuli for dormancy release and subsequent germination, with climate (cold or warm stratification) and light sometimes playing important secondary roles. Fire (heat or smoke)-released dormancy is best expressed where woody vegetation is dense and fires are intense, i.e. in crown-fire ecosystems (e.g., mediterranean-type ecosystems). In grassy fireprone ecosystems (e.g. savannas), where fires are less intense but more frequent, seed dormancy is less common and dormancy release is often not directly related to fire (non-fire-released dormancy). Fire-released dormancy is rare to absent in arid ecosystems and rainforests. Heat-released dormancy can be traced back to fireprone floras in the ‘fiery’ mid-Cretaceous, followed by smoke-released dormancy, with loss of fire-related dormancy among recent events associated with the advent of open savannas and non-fireprone habitats. Anthropogenic influences are now modifying dormancy-release mechanisms, usually decreasing the role of fire. We conclude that contrasting fire regimes are a key driver of the evolution and maintenance of diverse seed dormancy types in many of the world’s natural ecosystems.

Fig. 1. Percentage germination of 68 populations or species subjected to simulated fire- (y axis) and summer-type (warm stratification) temperature (x-axis) (C., Cistus; F., Fumana; U., Ulex; A., Acacia; M., Mimosa). Points above the dotted line (1:1) have higher germination levels after fire heat than after summer heat. Note that all points at or below the line are for species in savannas [S], while the others are from mediterranean shrublands and other crown-fire ecosystems. That is, in crown-fire ecosystems, fire is the most likely selective agent for dormancy. From [1].
Fig. 2. Dated phylogeny for major clades in the New and Old World Cistaceae together with closely related ancestral clades. Pie charts at the tips show the fraction of species that occur in crown-fire ecosystems (red), surface-fire ecosystems (orange), those with physical dormancy – hard seeds (green), and those with heat-released dormancy (blue). Blank sectors mean that the trait is absent. Letters at the tips refer to growth forms in the clade (T, tree; S, shrub or subshrub; H, herb/annual). Black dots indicate the crown age of diversification of the corresponding clade. From [1].


[1] Pausas J.G. & Lamont B.B. 2022. Fire-released seed dormancy – a global synthesis. Biological Reviews  [doi | pdf | supp. mat. | data (figshare)]

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