Background and aims Seed dormancy enhances fitness by preventing seeds from germinating when the probability of seedling survival and recruitment is low. The onset of physical dormancy is sensitive to humidity during ripening; however, the implications of this mechanism for seed bank dynamics have not been quantified. This study proposes a model that describes how humidity-regulated dormancy onset may control the accumulation of a dormant seed bank, and seed experiments are conducted to calibrate the model for an Australian Fabaceae, Acacia saligna. The model is used to investigate the impact of climate on seed dormancy and to forecast the ecological implications of human-induced climate change.
Methods The relationship between relative humidity and dormancy onset was quantified under laboratory conditions by exposing freshly matured non-dormant seeds to constant humidity levels for fixed durations. The model was field-calibrated by measuring the response of seeds exposed to naturally fluctuating humidity. The model was applied to 3-hourly records of humidity spanning the period 1972–2007 in order to estimate both temporal variability in dormancy and spatial variability attributable to climatic differences among populations. Climate change models were used to project future changes in dormancy onset.
Key Results A sigmoidal relationship exists between dormancy and humidity under both laboratory and field conditions. Seeds ripened under field conditions became dormant following very short exposure to low humidity (<20 %). Prolonged exposure at higher humidity did not increase dormancy significantly. It is predicted that populations growing in a temperate climate produce 33–55 % fewer dormant seeds than those in a Mediterranean climate; however, dormancy in temperate populations is predicted to increase as a result of climate change.
Conclusions Humidity-regulated dormancy onset may explain observed variation in physical dormancy. The model offers a systematic approach to modelling this variation in population studies. Forecast changes in climate have the potential to alter the seed bank dynamics of species with physical dormancy regulated by this mechanism, with implications for their capacity to delay germination and exploit windows for recruitment.