Germination responses to water potential in neotropical pioneers suggest large-seeded species take more risks

Matthew I. Daws, Lora M. Crabtree, James W. Dalling, Christopher E. Mullins, David F.R.P. Burslem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


• Background and Aims: In neotropical forests, very small-seeded pioneer species (<0.1 mg seed mass) recruit preferentially in small tree fall gaps and at gap edges, but large-seeded pioneers do not. Since water availability is related to gap size, these differences in microsite preference may reflect in part species-specific differences in germination at reduced water potentials. • Methods: For 14 neotropical pioneer species, the hypothesis is tested that small-seeded species, with shallow initial rooting depths, reduce the risks associated with desiccation by germinating more slowly and at higher water potentials than large-seeded species. • Key Results: Germination occurred both more quickly and at lower water potentials with increasing seed mass. For example, Ochroma pyramidale (seed mass 5.5 mg) had a time to 50% germination (T50) of 2.8 d and a median base potential for germination (ψb50) of -1.8 MPa while Clidemia quinquenervia (seed mass 0.017 mg) had a T50 of 17.6 d and ψb50 of -1.1 MPa. • Conclusions: These data suggest that small-seeded species germinate only in comparatively moist microsites, such as small canopy gaps, which may reduce the risk of drought-induced mortality. Conversely, large-seeded species are able to germinate in the drier environment of large gaps, where they benefit by enhanced seedling growth in a high irradiance environment. The positive association of seed size and canopy gap size for optimal seedling establishment is maintained by differential germination responses to soil water availability coupled with the scaling of radicle growth rate and seed size, which collectively confer greater drought tolerance on large-seeded species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)945-951
Number of pages7
JournalAnnals of botany
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2008


  • Germination
  • Neotropical
  • Panamá
  • Pioneer
  • Seed size
  • Water potential

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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