Seedling recruitment correlates with seed input across seed sizes: implications for coexistence

John L. Maron, Karyn L. Hajek, Philip G. Hahn, Dean E. Pearson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Understanding controls on recruitment is critical to predicting community assembly, diversity, and coexistence. Theory posits that at mean fecundity, recruitment of highly fecund small-seeded plants should be primarily microsite limited, which is indicated by a saturating recruitment function. In contrast, species that produce fewer large seeds are more likely to be seed-limited, which is characterized by a linear recruitment function. If these patterns hold in nature, seed predation that disproportionately affects larger-seeded species can limit their establishment. We tested these predictions by comparing recruitment functions among 16 co-occurring perennial forb species that vary by over two orders of magnitude in seed size. We also assessed how postdispersal seed predation by mice influenced recruitment. We added seeds at densities from zero to three times natural fecundity of each species to undisturbed plots and examined spatial variation in recruitment by conducting experiments across 10 grassland sites that varied in productivity and resource availability. Consistent across two replicated years, most species had linear recruitment functions across the range of added seed densities, indicative of seed-limited recruitment. Depending on year, the recruitment functions of only 19–37% of target species saturated near their average fecundity, and this was not associated with seed size. Recruitment was strongly inhibited by rodent seed predation for large-seeded species but not for smaller-seeded species. Proportional recruitment was more sensitive to spatial variation in recruitment conditions across sites for some small-seeded species than for large-seeded species. These results contradict the common belief that highly fecund small-seeded species suffer from microsite-limited recruitment. Rather, they imply that, at least episodically, recruitment can be strongly correlated to plant fecundity. However, proportional recruitment of small-seeded species was inhibited at productive sites to a greater extent than large-seeded species. Results also show that in a system where the dominant granivore prefers larger seeds, low-fecundity large-seeded species can suffer from even greater seed-limited recruitment than would occur in the absence of predators.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02848
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019


  • coexistence
  • microsite limited recruitment
  • recruitment functions
  • seed addition
  • seed limitation
  • seed predation
  • seed size


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