The widespread appearance of megaphyll leaves, with their branched veins and planate form, did not occur until the close of the Devonian period at about 360Myr ago. This happened about 40Myr after simple leafless vascular plants first colonized the land in the Late Silurian/Early Devonian, but the reason for the slow emergence of this common feature of present-day plants is presently unresolved. Here we show, in a series of quantitative analyses using fossil leaf characters and biophysical principles, that the delay was causally linked with a 90% drop in atmospheric pCO2 during the Late Palaeozoic era. In contrast to simulations for a typical Early Devonian land plant, possessing few stomata on leafless stems, those for a planate leaf with the same stomatal characteristics indicate that it would have suffered lethal overheating, because of greater interception of solar energy and low transpiration. When planate leaves first appeared in the Late Devonian and subsequently diversified in the Carboniferous period, they possessed substantially higher stomatal densities. This observation is consistent with the effects of the pCO2 on stomatal development and suggests that the evolution of planate leaves could only have occurred after an increase in stomatal density, allowing higher transpiration rates that were sufficient to maintain cool and viable leaf temperatures.
- Pub Date:
- March 2001