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El Niño effects on soil seed bank dynamics in north-central Chile

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The soil seed bank was monitored in four 75×75 m plots over 6 years (1990–1995) in an arid thorn scrub community in north-central Chile. Sixty-six species were identified. Total seed densities ranged from 2,000 to 42,000/m2. Average mass of shrub seeds was significantly greater than that of other growth-forms. Between 70 and 90% of the seeds were less than 1 mg, with those in the 0.51–1.00 mg size class being most numerous. Seed densities were highly variable between years as well as within years, but were also closely associated with plant cover patterns and rainfall regime. Higher seed densities were found in wet years, and in samples taken in early summer and early autumn (i.e., after seed set); the lowest seed densities were in late winter (i.e., after annual plant germination). The annual plant species with the highest cover were also the most abundant in the soil seed bank and exhibited the largest seed density fluctuations. In general, seed densities were 5- to 10-fold higher during the 1991–1992 El Niño/southern oscillation (ENSO) years than non-ENSO years, showing the importance of this phenomenon for seed bank replenishment in the arid region of Chile.

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We thank A. Levicán for seed analyses and G. Arancio (Curator of the Herbarium, Universidad de La Serena) for plant species identification. We are grateful to Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF), IV Region for permitting the realization of this study in Parque Nacional Fray Jorge. We appreciate the comments of M. Holmgren on an early version of the manuscript. This work was funded by grants from US National Science Foundation (DEB96-15499 and DEB98-73708) and FONDECYT (90-0930, 193-1150, 197-0576 and 1000041).

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Correspondence to Julio R. Gutiérrez.

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Gutiérrez, J.R., Meserve, P.L. El Niño effects on soil seed bank dynamics in north-central Chile. Oecologia 134, 511–517 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-002-1156-5

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  • Annual plants
  • Chile
  • Coastal desert
  • Arid environment
  • ENSO