Edge effects on the realised soil seed bank along microclimatic gradients in temperate European forests

Despite the crucial role of the seed bank in forest conservation and dynamics, the effects of forest edge microclimate and climate warming on germination responses from the forest seed bank are still almost unknown. Here, we investigated edge effects on the realised seed bank and seedling community in two types of European temperate deciduous forest, one in the Oceanic and one in the Mediterranean climatic region. Responses in terms of seedling density, diversity, species composition and functional type of the seed bank at the forest edge and interior were examined along latitudinal, elevational and stand structural gradients by means of soil translocation experiments. Moreover, we translocated soil samples from high to low elevation forests in the two regions, thus performing a warming simulation. Density, species diversity and mortality of the seedlings varied with region and elevation.

Seedling density also differed between forest edge and interior position, while seedling cover mainly depended on forest structure. Both the edge and interior forest seed bank contained a high proportion of generalist species. In Belgium, a more homogeneous seed bank was found at the forest edge and interior, while in Italy compositional and ecological differences were larger: at the forest edge, more light and less moisture demanding seedling communities developed, with a higher proportion of generalists compared to the interior. In both regions, the upland-to-lowland translocation experiment revealed effects of warming on forest seed banks with thermophilization of the realised communities. Moreover, edge conditions shifted the seedling composition towards more light-demanding communities. The establishment of more light and warm-adapted species from the seed bank could in the long term alter the aboveground vegetation composition, with communities becoming progressively richer in light-demanding generalists and poorer in forest specialists.

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