Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 December 2016
In fire-prone ecosystems, many species regenerate after fire from persistent soil seed banks. Species with physically dormant (PY) seeds have dormancy broken by fire-related heat. The magnitude of post-fire recruitment, to predict response to varying fire severity, is commonly estimated by testing dormancy-breaking temperature thresholds of fresh PY seeds. However, seeds spend years in the soil during the inter-fire period, and determining whether dormancy-breaking thresholds change over time is essential to accurately predict population persistence. Germination of four south-eastern Australian PY species from the Fabaceae family (Acacia linifolia, Aotus ericoides, Bossiaea heterophylla and Viminaria juncea) were studied. Dormancy-breaking temperature thresholds vary inter-specifically and the species represented either high or low dormancy-breaking threshold classes. Freshly collected seeds, and seeds that had been buried in the field or stored in dry laboratory conditions for 6 and 18 months were subjected to a fire-related range of heat treatments (40–100°C). Seed ageing increased germination response to heat treatments, effectively lowering the dormancy-breaking thresholds of three species. The fourth species, A. linifolia, initially had a relatively large non-dormant fraction which was lost as seeds aged, with older seeds then displaying PY broadly similar to the other study species. Patterns of threshold decay were species-specific, with the thresholds and viability of low-threshold species declining more rapidly than high-threshold species. The non-dormant fraction did not increase over time for any of our study species. Instead of increasing their non-dormant fraction, as is common in other vegetation types, these fire-prone PY species displayed a change of dormancy-breaking temperature thresholds. This is an important distinction, as maintaining dormancy during the inter-fire period is essential for population persistence. While changes in sensitivity to dormancy-breaking treatments have previously been reported as seeds age, our study provides the first test of changes to temperature thresholds, which increases the range of germination response from the seed bank under varying fire severity.