Background and aimsMany studies have analysed the mechanisms that determine plant coexistence in standing vegetation, but the determinants of soil seed bank species assemblies have rarely been studied. In gypsum soil communities, aerial vegetation and seed banks are tightly connected in space and time, but the mechanisms involved in their organization may differ. The aim of this study is to understand the relative importance of biotic and abiotic factors controlling soil seed bank composition and structure.
MethodsPersistent and complete (i.e. persistent plus transient) soil seed banks were investigated at two spatial scales in a very species-rich semi-arid community dominated by annuals. A water addition treatment equivalent to 50 % annual increase in average precipitation (abiotic factor) was applied for two consecutive years, and the relationships of the soil seed bank to the biological soil crust (BSC), above-ground vegetation and the presence of Stipa tenacissima tussocks (biotic factors) were simultaneously evaluated.
Key resultsAs expected, the standing vegetation was tightly related to seed abundance, species richness and composition in both seed banks. Remarkably, BSC cover was linked to a decrease in seed abundance and species richness in the persistent seed bank, and it even determined complete seed bank composition at the fine spatial scale. However, this effect disappeared at coarser scales, probably because of the high spatial heterogeneity induced by BSCs. In contrast to findings on standing vegetation, Stipa and the irrigation treatment for two consecutive years had no effect on soil seed banks.
ConclusionsSoil seed bank assemblies in our semi-arid plant community were the result of above-ground vegetation dynamics and of the direct filtering processes on seed fate operated by the spatially heterogeneous BSCs. Cover of BSCs was negatively correlated with seed abundance and species richness, and affected seed species composition in the soil. Changes in species composition and enrichment when the BSC cover is low suggest that BSCs promote a fine scale niche differentiation in the soil seed bank and thereby potentially enhance species coexistence and high species diversity in these communities.