Seed Dispersal


The sedentary life of adult plants accentuates the critical importance of the short phase during which individual plants move: the dispersal of seeds, a common, widespread and fascinating phenomenon. Ultimately, selective pressures favouring dispersal include inbreeding avoidance, reduction of competition with kin and nonkin and the tracking of establishment opportunities in time and space. Proximately, dispersal mechanisms include nonrandom release from the mother plant, and transport by multiple dispersal vectors not necessarily those inferred from the seed morphology. The resulting patterns, often described by dispersal kernels, typically show a decline in seed deposition with distance from the source and a tail of long‐distance dispersal events. Yet, environmental heterogeneity may cause more complex dispersal patterns. Dispersal has important consequences for the fate of individuals, populations, communities and ecosystems, enabling metapopulations and metacommunities to persist and playing a critical role in shaping the evolutionary and plastic response of plants to changing environments.

Key concepts

  • Dispersal is a widespread phenomenon among plants, selected to avoid inbreeding, to reduce competition with kin and nonkin and to cope with spatiotemporally variable environments.

  • Causes for dispersal evolution act in concert, interact and may affect differently the evolution of short‐ and long‐distance dispersal.

  • Seeds typically depart from the source plant in a nonrandom fashion, suggesting selection to coordinate seed release with favourable conditions for dispersal and/or establishment.

  • Seeds of a given plant species are typically dispersed by multiple vectors, including ‘nonstandard’ vectors differing from those inferred from the seed morphology.

  • Dispersal kernels describe how seed deposition varies – in one, two or three spatial dimensions – in relation to the distance from the seed source.

  • One‐dimensional dispersal kernels generally show a decline in seed number (or density) with distance, and a ‘fat’ tail implying more long‐distance dispersal events than expected from a negative exponential distribution.

  • Complex dispersal kernels arise because seed deposition often varies not only with distance but also with direction and environmental heterogeneity.

  • Dispersal plays a key role in allowing plants to adapt to climate changes, to spread within and outside their native range and to maintain metapopulations and metacommunities.

  • New methods to model the underlying mechanisms, to analyze gene flow and genetic structure and to quantify dispersal patterns increase our understanding and predictability of seed dispersal in general, and long‐distance dispersal in particular.

Keywords: seed dispersal; long‐distance dispersal; dispersal kernels; gene flow; spatial spread

Figure 1.

Example of a one‐dimensional dispersal distance kernel (a probability density function of dispersal distance). Note that the lognormal kernel shown here has both a convex shape near the source and a fat tail. The fat tail of the lognormal kernel bends away from the x‐axis in a semilog plot (insert). Hence, it drops more slowly than the tail of any exponential kernel (thin lines).

Figure 2.

A complex two‐dimensional dispersal density kernel. The right‐hand part of the figure shows the two‐dimensional equivalent of the dispersal distance kernel in Figure . The left‐hand part shows secondary peaks of seed deposition and areas behind these peaks where seed deposition is decreased.

Figure 3.

A schematic of how the different dispersal kernels of two species relate to dynamics at different scales. Most seeds of species A (solid line) fall within the local population, but it has a large tail which allows exchange of seeds among regional populations. Species B (dashed line) has a further modal dispersal distance than A, but this causes many seeds to disperse out of the local population. The tail is relatively thin so there is little exchange of seeds among regional populations. Population spread involves the whole kernel.



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Further Reading

Bullock JM, Kenward RE and Hails R (eds) (2002) Dispersal Ecology. Malden: Blackwell.

Clobert J, Danchin E, Dhondt AA and Nichols JD (eds) (2001) Dispersal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Dennis AJ, Schupp EW, Green RJ and Westcott DA (eds) (2007) Seed Dispersal: Theory and Its Application in a Changing World. Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Fenner M and Thompson K (2005) The Ecology of Seeds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Forget PM, Lambert JE, Hulme PE and Vander Wall SB (eds) (2004) Seed Fate: Predation, Dispersal and Seedling Establishment. Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Levey DJ, Silva WR and Galetti M (eds) (2002) Seed Dispersal and Frugivory: Ecology, Evolution and Conservation. Wallingford: CAB International.

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Nathan, Ran, Bullock, James M, Ronce, Ophélie, and Schurr, Frank M(Sep 2009) Seed Dispersal. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021225]