The soil seed bank can buffer long-term compositional changes in annual plant communities

Niv DeMalach*, Jaime Kigel, Marcelo Sternberg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Ecological theory predicts that the soil seed bank stabilizes the composition of annual plant communities in the face of environmental variability. However, long-term data on the community dynamics in the seed bank and the standing vegetation are needed to test this prediction. We tested the hypothesis that the composition of the seed bank undergoes lower temporal variability than the standing vegetation in a 9-year study in Mediterranean, semi-arid and arid ecosystems. The composition of the seed bank was estimated by collecting soil cores from the studied sites on an annual basis. Seedling emergence under optimal watering conditions was measured in each soil core for three consecutive years, to account for seed dormancy. In all sites, the composition of the seed bank differed from the vegetation throughout the years. Small-seeded and dormant-seeded species had a higher frequency in the seed bank than in the standing vegetation. In contrast, functional group membership (grasses vs. forbs) did not explain differences in species frequency between the seed bank and the vegetation after controlling for differences between grasses and forbs in seed mass and seed dormancy. Contrary to predictions, the magnitude of year-to-year variability (the mean compositional dissimilarity between consecutive years) was not lower in the seed bank than in the vegetation in all sites. However, long-term compositional trends in the seed bank were weaker than in the vegetation in the Mediterranean and semi-arid sites. In the arid site where year-to-year variability was highest, no long-term trends were observed. Synthesis. The effect of the seed bank on the temporal variability of the vegetation in annual communities depends on site conditions and time-scale. While the year-to-year variability of the seed bank is similar to the vegetation, the soil seed bank can buffer long-term trends.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1275-1283
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors are most grateful to Claus Holzapfel, Hadas Parag, Danny Harel and Danny Wallach for soil seed bank sampling, and to Irit Konsens for vegetation sampling. They thank two anonymous reviewers and the handling editor for constructive comments on this manuscript. Michael Kalyuzhny provided comments on the temporal analyses. The study was supported by the GLOWA Jordan River project and funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). N.D. was supported by the Tel Aviv University Postdoctoral Fellowship. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 British Ecological Society


  • community composition
  • dormancy
  • drylands
  • rainfall gradient
  • resilience
  • seed size
  • temporal stability
  • temporal variability


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