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Leaf Database Helping To Understand Taxonomy And Climate

By Conni Kunzler | July 10, 2017

Source: Heidi Ledford, “Massive database of 182,000 leaves is helping predict plants’ family trees,” Nature

Waco, TX (July 7, 2017) – A new atlas that traces the shapes of 182,000 leaves from 141 plant families and 75 locations around the world shows promise for refining scientists’ ability to tell the story of a tree or other plant from its leaves.

The yellow foliage of a honey locust tree.

The story of a plant is etched in its leaves. A tree growing in a cold environment with plenty of water is more likely to have large leaves with many serrated teeth around the edges. But if the same species lives in a warm, dry region, its leaves are likely to be smaller and smoother.

Using the atlas, researchers found that leaf shape alone accurately predicted where a leaf was collected 14.5% of the time, and plant family correctly 27.3% of the time. That is far better than predictions made using conventional methods to describe a leaf’s shape.

Researchers hope that the approach will help them to learn more about the forces that shape plant leaves, and even to get a glimpse of ancient climates by analysing the shapes of fossilized plants. “It’s an amazing data set,” says Dan Peppe, a palaeobotanist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “We’re getting closer and closer to automating measures of leaf shape, and using that to figure out the taxonomy of a plant and reconstruct climate.”

The results were posted on 20 June to bioRxiv, a server that hosts biology preprints. Plant morphologist and lead author Dan Chitwood also presented the study at the Botany 2017 meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, on 27 June.

Read the full article.

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