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 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.