Dormancy-defense syndromes and tradeoffs between physical and chemical defenses in seeds of pioneer species

Paul Camilo Zalamea, James W. Dalling, Carolina Sarmiento, A. Elizabeth Arnold, Carolyn Delevich, Mark A. Berhow, Anyangatia Ndobegang, Sofia Gripenberg, Adam S. Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Seeds of tropical pioneer trees have chemical and physical characteristics that determine their capacity to persist in the soil seed bank. These traits allow seeds to survive in the soil despite diverse predators and pathogens, and to germinate and recruit even decades after dispersal. Defenses in seedlings and adult plants often are described in terms of tradeoffs between chemical and physical defense, but the interplay of defensive strategies has been evaluated only rarely for seeds. Here we evaluated whether classes of seed defenses were negatively correlated across species (consistent with tradeoffs in defense strategies), or whether groups of traits formed associations across species (consistent with seed defense syndromes). Using 16 of the most common pioneer tree species in a neotropical lowland forest in Panama we investigated relationships among four physical traits (seed fracture resistance, seed coat thickness, seed permeability, and seed mass) and two chemical traits (number of phenolic compounds and phenolic peak area), and their association with seed persistence. In addition, seed toxicity was assessed with bioassays in which we evaluated the activity of seed extracts against representative fungal pathogens and a model invertebrate. We did not find univariate tradeoffs between chemical and physical defenses. Instead, we found that seed permeability – a trait that distinguishes physical dormancy from other dormancy types – was positively associated with chemical defense traits and negatively associated with physical defense traits. Using a linear discriminant analysis and a hierarchical cluster analysis we found evidence to distinguish three distinct seed defense syndromes that correspond directly with seed dormancy classes (i.e., quiescent, physical, and physiological). Our data suggest that short and long-term persistence of seeds can be achieved via two strategies: having permeable seeds that are well defended chemically, corresponding to the physiologically dormant defense syndrome; or having impermeable seeds that are well defended physically, corresponding to the physically dormant defense syndrome. In turn, transient seeds appear to have a lower degree of chemical and physical defenses, corresponding to the quiescent defense syndrome. Overall, we find that seed defense and seed dormancy are linked, suggesting that environmental pressures on seed persistence and for delayed germination can select for trait combinations defining distinct dormancy-defense syndromes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1988-1998
Number of pages11
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2018


  • Barro Colorado Island
  • dormancy types
  • lowland tropical forests
  • pioneer trees
  • plant defense theory
  • seed defenses
  • seed persistence
  • soil seed bank

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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