Over the past 35 years plant defense theory has become a robust framework for understanding ecological interactions between plants and antagonists, providing a context for interpreting broad patterns in the taxonomic and functional composition of plant communities. This framework has been built almost entirely on traits expressed by seedlings and mature plants, but has been largely silent about the critical component of reproduction and recruitment for most plant species: seeds.
The goal of our work is to understand how seeds are defended in nature, and the suites of characteristics that co-vary with defensive traits to form seed defense syndromes, analogous to those in mature plants. Our international team of tropical ecologists, seed biologists, mycologists is focusing on tropical pioneer trees, which encompass a wide range of defensive traits, to understand how seeds interact with natural enemies in soil, where fungi are the major agents of seed mortality. In addition to providing a new framework for understanding tropical forest ecology and seed demography, our research will contribute to strategies for controlling invasive plants that propagate by seeds, provide cross-disciplinary training for graduate- and postdoctoral fellows, and provide the basis for outreach and workshops in Panama and the US.