March 28, 2012

Big Sagebrush May Need To Count On Its Soil Seed Bank For Survival

New research reveals Artemisia tridentata seeds can form a persistent seed bank, ensuring its survival in an invasive, fire-prone system

Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is a key foundational species in an ecosystem that is threatened by invasion of cheatgrass and the subsequent increase in fire frequency. Critical to the conservation, reestablishment, and restoration of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem (which comprises 63 million hectares of the Great Basin of North America) is understanding the dynamics of A. tridentata seeds–how long do they remain viable and are they able to persist in the seed bank for any length of time?

Previously it was thought that A. tridentata seeds did not persist in the seed bank, severely curtailing this species' ability to regenerate post-fire. Upekala Wijayratne and David Pyke (USGS and Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR) experimentally investigated whether A. tridentata seeds were able to form a short-term seed bank, a critical strategy that would enable this species to persist despite environmental conditions that have been altered by the invasive cheatgrass. They published their findings in a recent issue of the American Journal of Botany (

"Understanding seed bank dynamics of sagebrush, an ecologically and economically significant species, is important for its sustainable management," said Wijayratne.

"Many seed viability studies are conducted in greenhouse settings or within a very small field site," she added. "What makes this study valuable is that it was replicated at several different study sites throughout the Great Basin."

By sowing seeds of two different subspecies of A. tridentata at the soil's surface, under the leaf litter, and buried 3 cm below the soil at six different study sites across Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada, the authors determined that, contrary to previous assumptions, seeds were able to survive in the soil beyond a single growing season and as much as up to 2 years post-dispersal.

Interestingly, the authors found that very few seeds that were on the surface or under the leaf litter survived intact within the first year–they either decomposed or germinated right away. In contrast, 30%