Small traits with big consequences: How seed traits of nitrogen-fixing plants might influence ecosystem nutrient cycling

26 October 2018

Wilcots, Megan; Taylor, Benton; Kuprewicz, Erin; Menge, Duncan

Symbiotic nitrogen (N)-fixing plants have important effects on the biogeochemical processes of the sites they inhabit, but their ability to reach these sites is determined by the dispersal of their seeds. Differences in seed size and dispersal vectors of N-fixing and non-fixing plants could influence the spatial and temporal distributions of N fixers, and thus could have important impacts on biogeochemical cycling. Using seed mass, dispersal vector, and biome data retrieved from online public databases, we ask if there are systematic differences in seed mass and dispersal vectors between N-fixing and non-fixing plants. We demonstrate that rhizobial N fixers tend to have larger seeds that are more likely to be biotically dispersed than seeds of non-fixers, whereas actinorhizal N-fixing trees tend to have small, abiotically dispersed seeds. We then synthesize existing evidence from the literature to draw links between these dispersal traits and the spatio-temporal patterns of N fixers, as well as their biogeochemical effects on terrestrial ecosystems. Using this literature, we argue that the spatio-temporal distributions of N fixers are influenced by their seed dispersal characteristics, and that these distribution patterns have important effects on the total amount of N fixed at a site and the timing of N inputs during processes such as succession.