The fire avoidance hypothesis proposes that a benefit of seed dispersal by ants (myrmecochory) is to protect seeds from being killed during fire and to facilitate post-fire germination of seeds that require heat shock to break their physical dormancy. The aim of this study was to quantify the effect of fire and seed burial by a predominant seed-dispersing ant, Rhytidoponera metallica (subfamily: Ectatomminae) on germination levels of three ant-dispersed legume species (Pultenaea daphnoides, Acacia myrtifolia and Acacia pycnantha). Experimental burial of seeds within aluminium cans at a site prior to being burnt and at an adjacent unburnt site showed that fire increased germination levels, particularly for seeds buried at 1- and 2-cm deep and that overall, germination levels differed among the three plant species. To quantify seed burial depths and post-fire germination levels facilitated by R. metallica ants, seeds were fed to colonies prior to fire at the burnt and unburnt sites. Of the seeds buried within nests that were recovered, between 45% and 75% occurred within the upper 6 cm of the soil profile, although unexpectedly, greater percentages of seeds were recovered from the upper 0–2 cm of nests in the unburnt site compared with nests in the burnt site. Germination levels of buried seeds associated with R. metallica nests ranged from 21.2% to 29.5% in the burnt site compared with 3.1–14.8% in the unburnt site. While increased seed germination levels were associated with R. metallica nests following fire, most seeds were buried at depths below those where optimal temperatures for breaking seed dormancy occurred during the fire. We suggest that R. metallica ants may provide fire avoidance benefits to myrmecochorous seeds by burying them at a range of depths within a potential germination zone defined by intra- and inter-fire variation in levels of soil heating.
- seed bank
- seed dispersal