Seed polyphenols in a diverse tropical plant community

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Polyphenols are one of the most common groups of secondary metabolites in plants and thought to play a key role in enhancing plant fitness by protecting plants against enemies. Although enemy-inflicted mortality at the seed stage can be an important regulator of plant populations and a key determinant of community structure, few studies have assessed community-level patterns of polyphenol content in seeds. We describe the distribution of the main seed polyphenol groups across 196 tree and liana species on Barro Colorado Island (Panama) and community-level patterns in two aspects of their biological activity (protein precipitation and oxidative capacity). Taking advantage of substantial variation in morphological and ecological traits in the studied plant community, we test for correlations and trade-offs between seed polyphenols and nonchemical plant traits hypothesised to make plant species more or less likely to invest in polyphenol production. The majority of species have polyphenols in their seeds. The incidence and concentrations of polyphenols were related to a set of nonchemical plant traits. Polyphenols were most likely to be present (and where present, to be expressed in high concentrations) in species with large seeds, short seed dormancy times, low investment in mechanical seed defences, high wood density, high leaf mass per area, tough leaves and slow growth rates. Synthesis. Our study reveals a potential trade-off between chemical and mechanical seed defences and shows that plant species that invest in physical defences at later life stages (high wood density and tough leaves) tend not to invest in physical defences of seeds but instead produce secondary metabolites likely to act as seed defences. Overall, our results conform to predictions from the resource availability hypothesis, which states that species in resource-limited environments (such as slow-growing shade-tolerant tree species) will invest more in defences than fast-growing pioneer species.


  • Sofia Gripenberg
  • Jadranka Rota
  • Jorma Kim
  • S. Joseph Wright
  • Nancy C. Garwood
  • Evan C. Fricke
  • Paul Camilo Zalamea
  • Juha Pekka Salminen
External organisations
  • University of Oxford
  • University of Turku
  • Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
  • Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
  • Iowa State University
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Ecology
  • Biochemistry and Molecular Biology


  • Barro Colorado Island, Chemical seed defences, Determinants of plant community diversity and structure, Macroevolution of plant defences, Plant apparency theory, Resource availability hypothesis, Tannins
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-100
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date2017 Jun 22
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Jan
Publication categoryResearch