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.

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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.


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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.

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Correspondence to Ran Nathan.

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

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