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Plant Biol (Stuttg). 2012 Jan;14(1):163-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1438-8677.2011.00490.x. Epub 2011 Jun 20.

Litter effects on seedling establishment interact with seed position and earthworm activity.

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Institute of Landscape Ecology and Resource Management, Interdisciplinary Research Centre, Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, Giessen, Germany.


Seedling establishment is influenced by litter cover and by seed predators, but little is known about interactions between these two factors. We tested their effects on emergence of five typical grassland species in a microcosm experiment. We manipulated the amounts of grass litter, seed sowing position and earthworm activity to determine whether: (i) the protective effect of litter against seed predation depends on cover amount and seed sowing position, i.e., on top or beneath litter; (ii) seed transport by earthworms changes the effect of seed sowing position on seedling emergence; and (iii) seeds transported into deeper soil layers by earthworms are still germinable. Litter cover and presence of earthworms lowered seedling emergence. The impact of seed position increased with seed size. Emergence of large-seeded species was reduced when sown on the surface. Additionally, we found an important seed position × earthworm interaction related to seed size. Emergence of large-seeded species sown on top of the litter was up to three times higher when earthworms were present than without earthworms. Earthworms also significantly altered the depth distribution of seeds in the soil and across treatments: on average 6% of seeds germinated after burial. In contrast to the seed position effect, we found no size effect on mobility and germinability of seeds after burial in the soil. Nevertheless, the fate of different-sized seeds may differ. While burial will remove large seeds from the regeneration pool, it may enhance seed bank build up in small-seeded species. Consequently, changes in the amount of litter cover and the invertebrate community play a significant role in plant community composition.

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