Where do the feral oilseed rape populations come from? A large-scale study of their possible origin in a farmland area.
Many cultivated species can escape from fields and colonize seminatural habitats as feral populations. Of these, feral oilseed rape is a widespread feature of field margins and roadside verges. Although considered in several studies, the general processes leading to the escape and persistence of feral oilseed rape are still poorly known. Notably, it remains unclear whether these annuals form transient populations resulting mainly from seed immigration (either from neighbouring fields or during seed transport), or whether they show real ability to persist (either through self-recruitment or seed banks). We conducted a 4-year large-scale study of factors involved in the presence of feral oilseed rape populations in a typical open-field area of France. The results were subjected to statistical methods suitable for analysing large data sets, based on a regression approach. We subsequently addressed the relative contribution of the ecological processes identified as being involved in the presence of feral populations. Many feral oilseed rape populations resulted from seed immigration from neighbouring fields (about 35-40% of the observed feral populations). Immigration occurred at harvest time rather than at sowing. Around 15% of such populations were attributed to immigration through seed transport. The other half resulted from processes of persistence, mainly through persistent seed banks (35-40% of the observed feral populations). This was all the more unexpected because seed banks have not yet been documented on road verges (despite being frequent within fields). Local recruitment was rare, accounting for no more than 10% of the feral populations. Synthesis and applications. Understanding the dynamics of feral oilseed rape populations is crucial for evaluating gene flow over an agro-ecosystem. Our results show that, while many feral populations do come from annual seed dispersal, a significant number also result from seeds stored in the soil for several years. In the current context of coexistence and management of transgenic with non-transgenic crops, feral persistence and, especially, the seed bank contribution to the dynamics of feral populations need to be considered seriously. The latter, combined with self-recruitment, indicates a high potential for the persistence of transgenes and the possible emergence of gene-stacking.