Temperatures of Desert Plants: Another Perspective on the Adaptability of Leaf Size

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Science  18 Aug 1978:
Vol. 201, Issue 4356, pp. 614-616
DOI: 10.1126/science.201.4356.614


Surface temperatures of perennial plants in the Sonoran Desert of California ranged from 20°C above air temperature to over 18°C below air temperature during rapid growth periods following rain. Desert cactus with large photosynthetic stem surfaces had the highest temperatures and lowest transpiration rates. Perennial plants with relatively small leaves had moderate transpiration rates and leaf temperatures close to air temperature. Desert perennials with relatively large leaves had leaf temperatures well below air temperature along with the greatest accompanying transpiration rates of over 20 micrograms per square centimeter per second, but also had correspondingly low temperatures for maximum photosynthesis. The low leaf temperatures measured for these large-leafed species are an exception to the more common pattern for desert plants whereby a smaller leaf size prevents overheating and leads to reductions in transpiration and increased water-use efficiency. The contribution of a larger leaf size to a lower leaf temperature, and thus higher rate of photosynthesis for these large-leafed species, may represent an adaptive pattern previously unrecognized for desert plants.