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Department of Plant Sciences

Big leaf, small niche

The leaves of the bromeliads, one of the largest plant families in the tropical Americas, occur in a set of shapes that have recurrently evolved through the history of the family. Some are narrow, spiny and succulent, while others are broad, unarmed, and thin. In this investigation I explored the connection between leaf shape, the architecture of leaf veins, and hydraulic function, showing that species with broad, petiolate leaves tend to show wider vein spacing and lower hydraulic conductance. This in turn is associated with limitation to moist habitats, often on the floor of dense, humid forests.

This study highlights the importance of developmental linkages between leaf morphology and internal anatomy in shaping the physiological capacity and environmental tolerances of plant species. It also provides insights into how the bromeliad family has succeeded in undergoing such rapid evolutionary diversification into a wide array of niches.

Males, J. 2017. Hydraulics link leaf shape and environmental niche in terrestrial bromeliads. Biotropica.


Caption: Pitcairnia tabuliformis, a bromeliad with unusual leaf shape.

Attribution: "Peter H. Raven Library/Missouri Botanical Garden, Creative Commons"