Research: SMU scientists help solve the mystery of climate and leaf size

Conifer needlesWhy is a banana leaf a million times bigger than a common heather leaf? Why are leaves generally much larger in tropical jungles than in temperate forests and deserts? The textbooks say it’s a balance between water availability and overheating – but researchers have found that it’s not that simple.

SMU paleobotanist Bonnie F. Jacobs has contributed work to a major new study that provides scientists with a new tool for understanding both ancient and future climate by looking at the size of plant leaves.

The study, published in the Sept. 1, 2017 issue of Science, was led by Associate Professor Ian Wright from Macquarie University, Australia. The study’s findings reveal that in much of the world the key factor limiting the size of a plant’s leaves is the temperature at night and the risk of frost damage to leaves.

Jacobs said the implications of the study are significant for enabling scientists to either predict modern leaf size in the distant future, or to understand the climate for a locality as it may have been in the past.

“This research provides scientists with another tool for predicting future changes in vegetation, given climate change, and for describing ancient climate given fossil leaves,” said Jacobs, a professor in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Now we can reliably use this as another way to look at future climate models for a specific location and predict the size of plant leaves,” she said. “Or, if we’re trying to understand what the climate was for a prehistoric site tens of millions of years ago, we can look at the plant fossils discovered in that location and describe what the climate most likely was at that time.”

Wright, Jacobs and 15 colleagues from Australia, the U.K., Canada, Argentina, the United States, Estonia, Spain and China analyzed leaves from more than 7,600 species, then pooled and analyzed the data with new theory to create a series of equations that can predict the maximum viable leaf size anywhere in the world based on the risk of daytime overheating and night-time freezing.

The researchers will use these findings to create more accurate vegetation models. This will be used by governments to predict how vegetation will change locally and globally under climate change, and to plan for adaptation.

“The conventional explanation was that water availability and overheating were the two major limits to leaf size. But the data didn’t fit,” says Wright. “For example the tropics are both wet and hot, and leaves in cooler parts of the world are unlikely to overheat.”

“Our team worked both ends of the problem – observation and theory,” he says. “We used big data – measurements made on tens of thousands of leaves. By sampling across all continents, climate zones and plant types we were able to show that simple ‘rules’ seemingly operate across the world’s plant species, rules that were not apparent from previous, more limited analyses.”

Jacobs contributed an extensive leaf database she compiled about 20 years ago, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. She analyzed the leaf characteristics of 880 species of modern tropical African plants, which occurred in various combinations among 30 plant communities. Jacobs measured leaves of the plant specimens at the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium, one of the largest archives of pressed dried plant specimens from around the world.

She looked at all aspects of leaf shape and climate, ranging from seasonal and annual rainfall and temperature for each locale, as well as leaf shape, size, tip, base, among others. Using statistical analyses to plot the variables, she found the most prominent relationship between leaf shape and climate was that size increases with rainfall amount. Wet sites had species with larger leaves than dry sites.

Her Africa database was added to those of many other scientists who have compiled similar data for other localities around the world.

— Written by Margaret Allen

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