Ecological significance of seed desiccation sensitivity in Quercus ilex
Background and Aims Several widespread tree species of temperate forests, such as species of the genus Quercus, produce recalcitrant (desiccation-sensitive) seeds. However, the ecological significance of seed desiccation sensitivity in temperate regions is largely unknown. Do seeds of such species suffer from drying during the period when they remain on the soil, between shedding in autumn and the return of conditions required for germination in spring?Methods To test this hypothesis, the Mediterranean holm oak (Quercus ilex) forest was used as a model system. The relationships between the climate in winter, the characteristics of microhabitats, acorn morphological traits, and the water status and viability of seeds after winter were then investigated in 42 woodlands sampled over the entire French distribution of the species.Key Results The percentages of germination and normal seedling development were tightly linked to the water content of seeds after the winter period, revealing that in situ desiccation is a major cause of mortality. The homogeneity of seed response to drying suggests that neither intraspecific genetic variation nor environmental conditions had a significant impact on the level of desiccation sensitivity of seeds. In contrast, the water and viability status of seeds at the time of collection were dramatically influenced by cumulative rainfall and maximum temperatures during winter. A significant effect of shade and of the type of soil cover was also evidenced.Conclusions The findings establish that seed desiccation sensitivity is a key functional trait which may influence the success of recruitment in temperate recalcitrant seed species. Considering that most models of climate change predict changes in rainfall and temperature in the Mediterranean basin, the present work could help foresee changes in the distribution of Q. ilex and other oak species, and hence plant community alterations.