Effects of Climate Change on Seed Germination May Contribute to Habitat Homogenization in Freshwater Forested Wetlands
Climate changes are expected to result in warmer, shorter winters in temperate latitudes. These changes may have consequences for germination of plant species that require a period of physiological dormancy. The effect of cold duration on seed germination has been investigated in a number of plant taxa, but has not been well studied in wetland and bottomland forest tree species, an ecosystem that is threatened by habitat homogenization. Our work sought to test the role of changing winter temperatures on seed germination in specialist (Nyssa aquatica and Taxodium distichum) and generalist (Acer rubrum and Liquidambar styraciflua) tree species within forested wetlands throughout the eastern U.S.. The experiment was conducted in an environmental chamber in Norfolk, VA, USA. Seeds of T. distichum, N. aquatica, A. rubrum, and L. styraciflua were exposed to each of pre-germination cold exposure durations (0, 15, 30, 45, 60, 75, and 90 days) and observed for germination for 30 days. Cold stratification duration positively impacted total percent germination in N. aquatica (p < 0.0001) as well as A. rubrum (p = 0.0008) and T. distichum (p = 0.05). Liquidambar styraciflua seeds exhibited more rapid rates of germination with increasing cold exposure duration and greater percent germination compared to the others regardless of cold stratification duration. Our results provide insight into how community dynamics and biodiversity of wetland and bottomland trees may shift with a changing climate. Further, this work emphasizes the importance of understanding the role of plant functional traits in early life stages in community dynamics and has implications for management practices.