Apparent overinvestment in leaf venation relaxes leaf morphological constraints on photosynthesis in arid habitats

Hugo J. de Boer, Paul L. Drake, Erin Wendt, Charles A. Price, Ernst Detlef Schulze, Neil C. Turner, Dean Nicolle, Erik J. Veneklaas

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Leaf veins supply the mesophyll with water that evaporates when stomata are open to allow CO2 uptake for photosynthesis. Theoretical analyses suggest that water is optimally distributed in the mesophyll when the lateral distance between veins (dx) is equal to the distance from these veins to the epidermis (dy), expressed as dx:dy ≈ 1. Although this theory is supported by observations of many derived angiosperms, we hypothesize that plants in arid environments may reduce dx:dy below unity owing to climate-specific functional adaptations of increased leaf thickness and increased vein density. To test our hypothesis, we assembled leaf hydraulic, morphological, and photosynthetic traits of 68 species from the Eucalyptus and Corymbia genera (termed eucalypts) along an aridity gradient in southwestern Australia. We inferred the potential gas-exchange advantage of reducing dx beyond dy using a model that links leaf morphology and hydraulics to photosynthesis. Our observations reveal that eucalypts in arid environments have thick amphistomatous leaves with high vein densities, resulting in dx:dy ratios that range from 1.6 to 0.15 along the aridity gradient. Our model suggests that, as leaves become thicker, the effect of reducing dx beyond dy is to offset the reduction in leaf gas exchange that would result from maintaining dx:dy at unity. This apparent overinvestment in leaf venation may be explained from the selective pressure of aridity, under which traits associated with long leaf life span, high hydraulic and thermal capacitances, and high potential rates of leaf water transport confer a competitive advantage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2286-2299
Number of pages14
JournalPlant Physiology
Issue number4
Early online date29 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016


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