Global climatic drivers of leaf size

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Science  01 Sep 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6354, pp. 917-921
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4760

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Leaf size, climate, and energy balance

Why does plant leaf size increase at lower latitudes, as exemplified by the evolutionary success of species with very large leaves in the tropics? Wright et al. analyzed leaf data for 7670 plant species, along with climatic data, from 682 sites worldwide. Their findings reveal consistent patterns and explain why earlier predictions from energy balance theory had only limited success. The authors provide a fully quantitative explanation for the latitudinal gradient in leaf size, with implications for plant ecology and physiology, vegetation modeling, and paleobotany.

Science, this issue p. 917


Leaf size varies by over a 100,000-fold among species worldwide. Although 19th-century plant geographers noted that the wet tropics harbor plants with exceptionally large leaves, the latitudinal gradient of leaf size has not been well quantified nor the key climatic drivers convincingly identified. Here, we characterize worldwide patterns in leaf size. Large-leaved species predominate in wet, hot, sunny environments; small-leaved species typify hot, sunny environments only in arid conditions; small leaves are also found in high latitudes and elevations. By modeling the balance of leaf energy inputs and outputs, we show that daytime and nighttime leaf-to-air temperature differences are key to geographic gradients in leaf size. This knowledge can enrich “next-generation” vegetation models in which leaf temperature and water use during photosynthesis play key roles.

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