Increasing temperatures can improve seedling establishment in arid-adapted savanna trees

Abstract

Plant species are shifting their ranges in response to global climate change, thus intensifying the need to predict such changes accurately. As the environmental requirements controlling plant distribution act differently at each developmental stage, there is a need to acquire a demographic-specific understanding of the factors which determine these distributions. Here we investigated the germination niche of two common savanna species Acacia nigrescens and Colophospermum mopane, with the aims to disentangle the direct and indirect effects of temperature on seed germination and establishment and to explore the impact of higher temperatures on the establishment success of savanna trees. Under laboratory conditions, we used thermal gradient plates to determine the thermal germination niche of both species, and a water stress experiment was conducted on C. mopane to account for water–temperature interactions. Using these data we parameterised a soil-moisture model to determine germination and establishment success under field conditions at current and future temperatures (+4 °C). Based on this model, higher future temperatures will not limit germination directly, but they will reduce the number of germination events by reducing the time window of suitable available soil water. Conversely, warmer conditions will accelerate the rate of radicle extension and increase the frequency of seedling establishment events. An additional advantage of higher temperatures is that fewer seeds will germinate, resulting in slower seed bank depletion when successful seedling establishment events do occur.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the Seed Conservation Department of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for hosting this work, and Anne Cochrane for putting us in contact with CES. Dr. Bob Scholes has assisted with the modelling methodology. This work received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, UCT travel grants and CSIR Land–atmosphere feedback PG funding.

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Correspondence to Nicola Stevens.

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Communicated by Allan T. G. Green.

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Stevens, N., Seal, C.E., Archibald, S. et al. Increasing temperatures can improve seedling establishment in arid-adapted savanna trees. Oecologia 175, 1029–1040 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-2958-y

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Keywords

  • Global change
  • Demographic
  • Temperature stress
  • Drought stress
  • Colophospermum mopane