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The Earth’s hidden biodiversity

3 January 2022
Together with Xuejun Yang and other Chinese and American colleagues, Hans Cornelissen, plant ecologist at VU, revealed the future of plant life by “digging” in the soil for hidden seeds.

The scientists dug for them figuratively by compiling ‘seed bank’ data from thousands of scientific papers in the literature to reveal global patterns. The research team found that the composition and density of seed banks can be predicted by climate and soil properties. This was recently published in Nature Communications.

Seeds are key to the long-term success of plant species, as they will disperse to new places to produce new plants to keep the species going or even expanding. But between dispersal and germination a lot can happen. Some species produce ‘germinate-or-die’ seeds while most other species produce seeds that can live in a state of rest for years or even decades. This allows them to overcome bad periods for plant growth, waiting for an opportunity to germinate when conditions are better.

This ‘dormancy’ behaviour is seen in some form or other in most plants on Earth and results in extensive stocks of living seeds, i.e. “seed banks”, in the soil. These seed banks are hidden treasure chests; they represent the potential for the future biodiversity on Earth.

Predicting future plant diversity
The research team guided by Cornelissen found that the composition and density of seed banks worldwide could be predicted by climate and soil properties. One of the important specific findings is that lower latitudes host much poorer seed banks than higher latitudes. Specifically, this renders tropical rain forest vulnerable to destruction by logging or other forces.

In the future, the research team wants to link the global hidden biodiversity in seed banks to the visible biodiversity aboveground, to get an even better handle on predicting future plant diversity on Earth. This will help to inform environmental policies aimed at safeguarding biodiversity.