Near the top of the world, deep inside a snow-covered mountain located on a Norwegian island, a vault houses nearly a million packets of seeds sent in from around the world. The purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is to maintain collections of crop seeds to ensure that these important species and varieties are not lost to neglect or catastrophe. In this way, our food supply is made more secure, buffered against the unpredictability of the future. Seed banks like this can be found around the world and are essential resources for plant conservation. While some, like Svalbard, are in the business of preserving crop species, others, like the Millennium Seed Bank, are focused on preserving seeds of plants found in the wild.
Outside of human-built seed banks, many plants maintain their own seed banks in the soil where they grow. This is the soil seed bank, a term that refers to either a collection of seeds from numerous plant species or, simply, the seeds of a single species. All seed bearing plants pass through a period as a seed waiting for the chance to germinate. Some do this quickly, as soon as the opportunity arises, while others wait, sometimes for many years, before germinating. Plants whose seeds germinate quickly, generally do not maintain a seed bank. However, seeds that don’t germinate right away and become incorporated in the soil make up what is known as a persistent soil seed bank.
A seed is a tiny plant encased in a protective layer. Germination is not the birth of a plant; rather, the plant was born when the seed was formed. The dispersal of seeds is both a spatial and temporal phenomenon. First the seed gets to where it’s going via wind, water, gravity, animal assistance, or some other means. Then it waits for a good opportunity to sprout. A seed lying in wait in the soil seed bank is an example of dispersal through time. Years can pass before the seed germinates, and when it does, the plant joins the above ground plant community.
Because seeds are living plants, seeds found in the soil seed bank are members of a plant community, even though they are virtually invisible and hard to account for. Often, the above ground plant community does not represent the population of seeds found in the soil below. Conversely, seeds in a seed bank may not be representative of the plants growing above them. This is because, as mentioned earlier, not all plant species maintain soil seed banks, and those that do have differences in how long their seeds remain viable. Depending on which stage of ecological succession the plant community is in, the collection of seeds below and the plants growing above can look quite different.
Soil seed banks are difficult to study. The only way to know what is truly there is to dig up the soil and either extract all the seeds or encourage them to germinate. Thanks to ecologists like Ken Thompson, who have studied seed banks extensively for many years, there is still a lot we can say about them. First, for the seeds of a plant to persist in the soil, they must become incorporated. Few seeds can bury themselves, so those with traits that make it easy for them to slip down through the soil will have a greater chance of being buried. Thompson’s studies have shown that “persistent seeds tend to be small and compact, while short-lived seeds are normally larger and either flattened or elongate.” Persistent seeds generally weigh less than 3 milligrams and tend to lack appendages like awns that can prevent them from working their way into the soil.
Slipping into cracks in the soil is a major way seeds move through the soil profile, but it isn’t the only way. In a study published in New Phytologist, Thompson suggests that “the association between small seeds and possession of a seed bank owes much to the activities of earthworms,” who ingest seeds at the surface and deposit them underground. Later, they may even bring them back up the same way. Ants also play a role in seed burial, as well as humans and their various activities. Some seeds, like those of Avena fatua and Erodium spp., have specialized appendages that actually help work the seeds into the soil.
Not remaining on the soil surface keeps seeds from either germinating, being eaten, or being transported away to another site. Avoiding these things, they become part of the soil seed bank. But burial is only part of the story. In an article published in Functional Ecology, Thompson et al. state that burial is “an essential prelude to persistence,” but other factors like “germination requirements, dormancy mechanisms, and resistance to pathogens also contribute to persistence.” If a buried seed rots away or germinates too early, its days as a member of the soil seed bank are cut short.
Soil seed banks can be found wherever plants are found – from natural areas to agricultural fields, and even in our own backyards. Thompson and others carried out a study of the soil seed banks of backyard gardens in Sheffield, UK. They collected 6 soil cores each (down to 10 centimeters deep) from 56 different gardens, and grew out the seeds found in each core to identify them. Most of the seeds recovered were from species known to have persistent seed banks, and to no surprise, the seed banks were dominated by short-lived, weedy species. The seeds were also found to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the soil cores. On this note, Thompson et al. remarked that due to “the highly disturbed nature of most gardens, regular cultivation probably ensures that seeds rapidly become distributed throughout the top 10 centimeters of soil.”
Like the seed banks we build to preserve plant species for the future, soil seed banks are an essential long-term survival strategy for many plant species. They are also an important consideration when it comes to managing weeds, which is something we will get into in a future post.