Background and Aims Intra-population variation in seed dormancy is an advantage for population persistence in unpredictable environments. The important role played by physically dormant species in these habitats makes understanding the level of variation in their dormancy a key ecological question. Heat produced in the soil is the major dormancy-breaking stimulus and, in fire prone ecosystems, soil temperatures generated by fire may vary spatially and over time. While many studies have investigated variation in initial dormancy, a measure that is of little value in fire-prone ecosystems, where initial dormancy levels are uniformly high, intra-population variation in dormancy-breaking temperature thresholds has never been quantified. This study predicted that species would display variation in dormancy-breaking temperature thresholds within populations, and investigated whether this variation occurred between individual plants from the same maternal environment.
Methods The intra-population variation in dormancy-breaking thresholds of five common physically dormant shrub species (family Fabaceae) from fire-prone vegetation in south-eastern Australia was assessed using heat treatments and germination trials. Replicate batches of seeds from each of four maternal plants of Dillwynia floribunda, Viminaria juncea, Bossiaea heterophylla, Aotus ericoides and Acacia linifolia were treated at 40, 60, 80, 100 and 120 °C.
Key Results Dormancy-breaking response to heat treatments varied significantly among individual plants for all species, with some individuals able to germinate after heating at low temperatures and others restricting germination to temperatures that only occur as a result of high-severity fires. Germination rate (T50) varied among individuals of three species.
Conclusions Variation detected among individuals that were in close proximity to each other indicates that strong differences in dormancy-breaking temperature thresholds occur throughout the broader population. Differences found at the individual plant level could contribute to subsequent variation within the seed bank, providing a bet-hedging strategy, and represent a mechanism for increasing the probability of population persistence in the face of fire regime variability.