Costs and benefits of non-random seed release for long distance dispersal in wind-dispersed plant species

8 March 2018

Treep, Jelle; de Jager, Monique; Kuiper, Leandra; Duman, Tomer; Katul , Gaby; Soons, Merel B.

The dispersal ability of plants is a major factor driving ecological responses to global change. In wind-dispersed plant species, non-random seed release in relation to wind speeds has been identified as a major determinant of dispersal distances. However, little information is available about the costs and benefits of non-random abscission and the consequences of timing for dispersal distances.
We asked: 1) To what extent is non-random abscission able to promote long-distance dispersal and what is the effect of potentially increased pre-dispersal risk costs? 2) Which meteorological factors and respective timescales are important for maximizing dispersal? These questions were addressed by combining a mechanistic modelling approach and field data collection for herbaceous wind-dispersed species.
Model optimization with a dynamic dispersal approach using measured hourly wind speed showed that plants can increase long-distance dispersal by developing a hard wind speed threshold below which no seeds are released. At the same time, increased risk costs limit the possibilities for dispersal distance gain and reduce the optimum level of the wind speed threshold, in our case (under representative Dutch meteorological conditions) to a threshold of 5-6 m s-1. The frequency and predictability (auto-correlation in time) of pre-dispersal seed-loss had a major impact on optimal non-random abscission functions and resulting dispersal distances.
We observed a similar, but more gradual, bias towards higher wind speeds in six out of seven wind-dispersed species under natural conditions. This confirmed that non-random abscission exists in many species and that, under local Dutch meteorological conditions, abscission was biased towards winds exceeding 5-6 m s-1.
We conclude that timing of seed release can vastly enhance dispersal distances in wind-dispersed species, but increased risk costs may greatly limit the benefits of selecting wind conditions for long-distance dispersal, leading to moderate seed abscission thresholds, depending on local meteorological conditions and disturbances.