Seed-Seedling Conflicts, Habitat Choice and Patterns of Plant Recruitment

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The ecological forces determining where within a landscape plants recruit and grow has been termed proximal habitat choice. Habitat choice is imposed first by a heterogeneous pattern of seed dispersal across the patches that make up the landscape and second by environmental variation that favors plant survival in some patches more than in others. Seed-seedling conflicts can occur during both of these phases of habitat choice if conditions or traits that are favorable for seeds are unfavorable for seedlings. During the dispersal phase, smaller seeds may have a greater probability of dispersal than larger seeds, and thus a greater probability of escape from predation, but they contain fewer reserves for support of the establishing seedling. After dispersal, environmental characteristics of a given patch type that lead to disproportionately high seed survival may lead to disproportionately low seedling survival. Considering three hypothetical landscapes, each composed of five patch types, I demonstrate that seed-seedling conflicts can have a major impact on both the overall quantity of recruitment at the landscape level and on the distribution of recruitment among patches. Available empirical evidence suggests these conflicts may be widespread in natural systems. Given their potential importance and extent, seed-seedling conflicts may play a previously unrecognized role in habitat choice.