As the spring foliage grows, each plant, like an entrepreneur, builds its leaves according to an economic strategy. Some plants live like the proverbial hare, following a "live fast, die young" strategy; their leaves produce and consume energy quickly but soon "burn out" or fall victim to bad weather or hungry herbivores. Other leaves are more tortoiselike, taking a "live slowly and last long" approach. A new study has revealed the global continuum of leaf economics, documenting where 2,548 species growing at 175 sites fit along the "tortoise-hare" continuum. For the first time, scientists can equate plants in Amazonian rain forest, Minnesota prairie or Alaskan spruce woods using the same set of economic strategies. Moreover, a plants position on the continuum predicts how it will likely respond to climate change and other factors. The work will be published in the April 22 issue of the journal Nature.
"This is the most comprehensive study of the physiology of natural vegetation ever done," said author Peter Reich, professor of forest resources at the University of Minnesota. "Leaves are little factories. As a factory, each can make money (energy) in a big hurry, but at the risk of running down its equipment fast. Or, a factory can have a slow and steady output. Its fundamental tradeoff for every leaf, and the strategy it follows determines how it reacts to change." Besides Reich, authors of the paper were Ian Wright (first author) and Mark Westoby of Macquarie University, Australia, Jeannine Cavender-Bares and Jacek Oleksyn from the University of Minnesota, and a long list of researchers from every inhabited continent.
It all began in 1985, when Reich was a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University. He compared the rates different plants captured and stored energy through photosynthesis and the rates they used energy--a process called respiration. He noticed that two fast-growing "hare" plants--poplar trees and soybeans--were more susceptible to ozone pollution than slower-growing "tortoise" pine trees.
Deane Morrison | EurekAlert!
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