Why high seed densities within buried mesh bags may overestimate depletion rates of soil seed banks.
Estimates of seed bank depletion rates are essential for modelling and management of plant populations. The seed bag burial method is often used to measure seed mortality in the soil. However, the density of seeds within seed bags is higher than densities in natural seed banks, which may elevate levels of pathogens and influence seed mortality. The aim of this study was to quantify the effects of fungi and seed density within buried mesh bags on the mortality of seeds. Striga hermonthica was chosen as the study species because it has been widely studied but different methods for measuring seed mortality in the soil have yielded contradictory estimates. Seed bags were buried in soil and exhumed at regular time intervals to monitor mortality of the seeds in three field experiments during two rainy seasons. The effect of fungal activity on seed mortality was evaluated in a fungi exclusion experiment. Differences in seed-to-seed interaction were obtained by using two and four densities within the seed bags in consecutive years. Densities were created by mixing 1000 seeds with 0, 10, 100 or 1000 g of coarse sand. The mortality rate was significantly lower when fungi were excluded, indicating the possible role of pathogenic fungi. Decreasing the density of seeds in bags significantly reduced seed mortality, most probably because of decreased seed-to-seed contamination by pathogenic fungi. Synthesis and applications. Models of plant populations in general and annual weeds in particular often use values from the literature for seed bank depletion rates. These depletion rates have often been estimated by the seed bag burial method, yet seed density within seed bags may be unrealistically high. Consequently, estimates of seed mortality rates may be too high because of an overestimation of the effects of soil or seedborne pathogens. Species that have been classified from such studies as having short-lived seed banks may need to be reassessed using realistic densities either within seed bags or otherwise. Similarly, models of seed bank dynamics based on such overestimated depletion rates may lead to incorrect conclusions regarding the seed banks and, perhaps, the management of weeds and rare species.