Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Mechanisms of long-distance dispersal of seeds by wind


Long-distance dispersal (LDD) is central to species expansion following climate change, re-colonization of disturbed areas and control of pests1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. The current paradigm is that the frequency and spatial extent of LDD events are extremely difficult to predict9,10,11,12. Here we show that mechanistic models coupling seed release and aerodynamics with turbulent transport processes provide accurate probabilistic descriptions of LDD of seeds by wind. The proposed model reliably predicts the vertical distribution of dispersed seeds of five tree species observed along a 45-m high tower in an eastern US deciduous forest. Simulations show that uplifting above the forest canopy is necessary and sufficient for LDD, hence, they provide the means to define LDD quantitatively rather than arbitrarily. Seed uplifting probability thus sets an upper bound on the probability of long-distance colonization. Uplifted yellow poplar seeds are on average lighter than seeds at the forest floor, but also include the heaviest seeds. Because uplifting probabilities are appreciable (as much as 1–5%), and tree seed crops are commonly massive, some LDD events will establish individuals that can critically affect plant dynamics on large scales.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Seed dispersal simulations of five wind-dispersed tree species around the Duke Forest tower, for 35 days during the autumn of 2000.
Figure 2: Bimodal dispersal kernel for yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) seeds released from 18 m in a 33-m-high forest, with a secondary peak at the tail generated exclusively by seed uplifting.
Figure 3: Frequency histograms of morphological traits of seeds collected at traps above the forest canopy top versus seeds collected on the forest floor during the autumn of 2001.


  1. Gregory, P. H. The Microbiology of the Atmosphere 2nd edn (Wiley, New York, 1973)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Pasquill, F. & Smith, F. B. Atmospheric Diffusion 3rd edn (Ellis Horwood, Chichester, 1983)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Leonard, K. J. & Fry, W. E. (eds) Plant Disease Epidemiology: Population Dynamics and Management (MacMillan, New York, 1986)

  4. Levin, S. A. The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology 73, 1943–1967 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Clark, J. S. et al. Reid's paradox of rapid plant migration: dispersal theory and interpretation of paleoecological records. Bioscience 48, 13–24 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Cain, M. L., Milligan, B. G. & Strand, A. E. Long-distance seed dispersal in plant populations. Am. J. Bot. 87, 1217–1227 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Nathan, R. & Muller-Landau, H. C. Spatial patterns of seed dispersal, their determinants and consequences for recruitment. Trends Ecol. Evol. 15, 278–285 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Nathan, R. in Encyclopedia of Biodiversity Vol. II (ed. Levin, S. A.) 127–152 (Academic Press, San Diego, 2001)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  9. Greene, D. F. & Johnson, E. A. Long-distance wind dispersal of tree seeds. Can. J. Bot. 73, 1036–1045 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Higgins, S. I. & Richardson, D. M. Predicting plant migration rates in a changing world: the role of long-distance dispersal. Am. Nat. 153, 464–475 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Bullock, J. M. & Clarke, R. T. Long distance seed dispersal by wind: measuring and modelling the tail of the curve. Oecologia 124, 506–521 (2000)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Clark, J. S., Lewis, M. & Horvath, L. Invasion by extremes: population spread with variation in dispersal and reproduction. Am. Nat. 157, 537–554 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Ridley, H. N. The Dispersal of Plants Throughout the World (Reeve, Ashford, 1930)

    Google Scholar 

  14. van der Pijl, L. Principles of Dispersal in Higher Plants 3rd edn (Springer, Berlin, 1982)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  15. Ridley, H. N. On the dispersal of seeds by wind. Ann. Bot. Lond. 19, 351–363 (1905)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Webber, M. L. Fruit dispersal. Malayan Forester 3, 18–19 (1934)

    Google Scholar 

  17. Willson, M. F. Dispersal mode, seed shadows, and colonization patterns. Vegetatio 107/108, 261–280 (1993)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Clark, J. S., Macklin, E. & Wood, L. Stages and spatial scales of recruitment limitation in southern Appalachian forests. Ecol. Monogr. 68, 213–235 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Okubo, A. & Levin, S. A. A theoretical framework for data analysis of wind dispersal of seeds and pollen. Ecology 70, 329–338 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Nathan, R., Safriel, U. N. & Noy-Meir, I. Field validation and sensitivity analysis of a mechanistic model for tree seed dispersal by wind. Ecology 82, 374–388 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Hsieh, C. I., Katul, G. G., Schieldge, J., Sigmon, J. T. & Knoerr, K. K. The Lagrangian stochastic model for fetch and latent heat flux estimation above uniform and nonuniform terrain. Water Resour. Res. 33, 427–438 (1997)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Katul, G. G. & Albertson, J. D. An investigation of higher-order closure models for a forested canopy. Boundary-Lay. Meteorol. 89, 47–74 (1998)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Higgins, S. I., Nathan, R. & Cain, M. L. Are long-distance dispersal events in plants usually caused by nonstandard means of dispersal? Ecology (submitted)

  24. Katul, G. G., Geron, C. D., Hsieh, C. I., Vidakovic, B. & Guenther, A. B. Active turbulence and scalar transport near the forest–atmosphere interface. J. Appl. Meteor. 37, 1533–1546 (1998)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Burns, R. M. & Honkala, B. H. Silvics of North America. Agricultural Handbook 654 (US Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, 1990)

    Google Scholar 

  26. De Steven, D. Experiments on mechanisms of free establishment in old-field succession: seedling survival and growth. Ecology 72, 1076–1088 (1991)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Nathan, R. The challenges of studying dispersal. Trends Ecol. Evol. 16, 481–483 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Horn, H. S., Nathan, R. & Kaplan, S. R. Long-distance dispersal of tree seeds by wind. Ecol. Res. 16, 877–885 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Finnigan, J. Turbulence in plant canopies. Ann. Rev. Fluid Mech. 32, 519–571 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Monin, A. S. & Yaglom, A. M. in Statistical Fluid Mechanics Vol. 1 (ed. Lumley, J.) 209–218 (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank M. Siqueira, C.-T. Lai, C.-I. Hsieh, I. Ibanez, S. LaDeau, B. Poulter, D. Ellsworth, J. Chave and O. Nathan for their help with data collection, and M. Cain for his comments. This study is supported by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy through their Integrative Biology and Neuroscience, Terrestrial Carbon Processes, and National Institute for Global Environmental Change (South-East Regional Center) programmes.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ran Nathan.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nathan, R., Katul, G., Horn, H. et al. Mechanisms of long-distance dispersal of seeds by wind. Nature 418, 409–413 (2002).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing