Seed size, nitrogen supply, and growth rate affect tree seedling survival in deep shade

Michael B. Walters, Peter B. Reich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

252 Scopus citations


Species differences in seedling survival in deeply shaded understories (i.e., shade tolerance) may depend on both seed size and growth rates, but their relative contributions to survival and how they change with time and with variation in light and belowground resource availability is unknown. With a greenhouse experiment we investigated these relationships by examining responses of growth, growth-related morphology, survival, and their interrelationships to a range of nitrogen (3.4 x 10-9-3.4 x 10-3 mol/L N fertilizer solutions) and low light (0.6-7.3% of open sky) availabilities for young seedlings of 10 North American tree species that vary in observational shade tolerance rankings and seed size (Populus tremuloides, Betula papyrifera, Betula alleghaniensis, Acer saccharum, Larix laricina, Pinus banksiana, Pinus resinosa, Pinus strobus, Picea mariana, and Abies hair samea). Within all species, relative growth rate (RGR) and survival increased with light RGR and survival also increased with N supply but only at the two highest light levels, and then only for the shade-intolerant, broad-leaved Populus and Betula spp.. In every species, survival was positively related to RGR. Moreover, each species differed in the relationship of survival to RGR, and these differences were related to seed mass: at any given RGR, large-seeded, shade-tolerant species had higher survival than smaller-seeded, intolerant ones. Across species, in most light and N treatments, seed mass was positively related to young seedling survival, but RGR was not. In very low light the relative benefits of greater seed mass to survival were temporary. As seedlings aged, interspecific mortality rates became more dependent on observational shade tolerance rankings than on seed size, but mortality was still unrelated to RGR. Our results indicate potentially important interactions among light, N, and species that could influence regeneration dynamics. For young seedlings in deeply shaded microsites, N supply does not matter, and only shade-tolerant species survive due, in part, to large seeds and physiological traits other than RGR. In moderate shade, RGR is greater, and survival is high for all species, except that small-seeded, broad-leaved, intolerant species have low survival and RGR at low N supply. This suggests that broad-leaved shade-intolerant species compete more effectively in moderate shade on richer soils than on poorer soils. Although we found that both seed mass and vegetative physiology influenced survival in shade, they did not covary tightly, suggesting that they are under somewhat separate selection pressures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1887-1901
Number of pages15
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2000


  • Biomass allocation
  • Cold-temperate forests
  • Low light
  • Nitrogen availability
  • Relative growth rate (RGR)
  • Seed size
  • Shade tolerance
  • Survival
  • Tree seedlings


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