Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Carbon loss by deciduous trees in a CO2-rich ancient polar environment

Abstract

Fossils demonstrate that deciduous forests covered the polar regions for much of the past 250 million years1 when the climate was warm and atmospheric CO2 high2. But the evolutionary significance of their deciduous character has remained a matter of conjecture for almost a century3. The leading hypothesis1,4,4,5,6,7 argues that it was an adaptation to photoperiod, allowing the avoidance of carbon losses by respiration from a canopy of leaves unable to photosynthesize in the darkness of warm polar winters8,9,10,11. Here we test this proposal with experiments using ‘living fossil’ tree species grown in a simulated polar climate with and without CO2 enrichment. We show that the quantity of carbon lost annually by shedding a deciduous canopy is significantly greater than that lost by evergreen trees through wintertime respiration and leaf litter production, irrespective of growth CO2 concentration. Scaling up our experimental observations indicates that the greater expense of being deciduous persists in mature forests, even up to latitudes of 83 °N, where the duration of the polar winter exceeds five months. We therefore reject the carbon-loss hypothesis as an explanation for the deciduous nature of polar forests.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Environmental data for growth rooms.
Figure 2: Experimental analyses of the carbon costs of leaf habit at 69 °N for two atmospheric CO2 levels.
Figure 3: High-latitude forest carbon budgets and climates.

References

  1. Spicer, R. A. & Chapman, J. L. Climate change and the evolution of high-latitude terrestrial vegetation and flora. Trends Ecol. Evol. 5, 279–284 (1990)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Crowley, T. J. & Berner, R. A. CO2 and climate change. Science 292, 870–872 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Seward, A. C. Antarctic Fossil Plants. British Antarctic (‘Terra Nova’) Expedition, 1910. British Museum Natural History Report. Geology 1, 1–49 (1914)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Chaney, R. W. Tertiary centers and migration routes. Ecol. Monogr. 17, 139–148 (1947)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Hickey, L. J. Eternal summer at 80 degrees north. Discovery 17, 17–23 (1984)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Wolfe, J. A. in The Carbon Cycle and Atmospheric CO2: Natural Variations, Archean to Present (eds Sundquist, E. T. & Broecker, W. S.) 357–375 (Geophys. Monogr. Ser. 32, American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 1985)

    Google Scholar 

  7. Falcon-Lang, H. J. & Cantrill, D. J. Leaf phenology of some mid-Cretaceous polar forests, Alexander Island, Antarctica. Geol. Mag. 138, 39–52 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Estes, R. & Hutchison, J. Eocene lower vertebrates from Ellesmere Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 30, 325–347 (1980)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Tarduno, J. A. et al. Evidence for extreme climatic warmth from Late Cretaceous arctic vertebrates. Science 282, 2241–2244 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Tripati, A., Zachos, J., Marincovich, L. & Bice, K. Late Paleocene Arctic coastal climate inferred from molluscan stable and radiogenic isotope ratios. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 170, 101–113 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dutton, A. L., Lohmann, K. C. & Zinsmeister, W. J. Stable isotope and minor element proxies for Eocene climate of Seymour Island, Antarctica. Paleoceanography 17(2), 1016, doi:10.1029/2000PA000593 (2002)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Müller, M. J. Selected Climatic Data for a Global Set of Standard Stations for Vegetation Science (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1981)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Beerling, D. J. & Osborne, C. P. Physiological ecology of Mesozoic polar forests in a high CO2 environment. Ann. Bot. 89, 329–339 (2002)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Osborne, C. P. & Beerling, D. J. A process-based model of conifer forest structure and function with special emphasis on leaf lifespan. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 16(4), 1097 doi:10.1029/2001GB001467 (2002)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Tjoelker, M. G., Oleksyn, J. & Reich, P. B. Modelling respiration of vegetation: evidence for a general temperature-dependent Q10 . Glob. Change Biol. 7, 223–230 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Read, J. & Francis, J. Responses of some Southern Hemisphere tree species to a prolonged dark period and their implications for high-latitude Cretaceous and Tertiary floras. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 99, 271–290 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Villar, R. & Merino, J. Comparison of leaf construction costs in woody species with differing leaf life-spans in contrasting ecosystems. New Phytol. 151, 213–226 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Yin, X. Responses of leaf nitrogen concentration and specific leaf area to atmospheric CO2 enrichment: a retrospective synthesis across 62 species. Glob. Change Biol. 8, 631–642 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Valdes, P. J., Sellwood, B. W. & Price, G. D. Evaluating concepts of Cretaceous equability. Palaeoclim. Data Modell. 2, 139–158 (1996)

    Google Scholar 

  20. Creber, G. T. & Chaloner, W. G. Tree growth in the Mesozoic and Early Tertiary and the reconstruction of palaeoclimates. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 52, 35–60 (1985)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Upchurch, G. R. & Askin, R. A. Latest Cretaceous and earliest Tertiary dispersed plant cuticles from Seymour Island. Antarct. J. US 24, 7–10 (1990)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Parrish, J. T., Daniel, I. L., Kennedy, E. M. & Spicer, R. A. Paleoclimatic significance of mid-Cretaceous floras from the middle Clarence Valley, New Zealand. Palaios 13, 149–159 (1998)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Axelrod, D. I. Origin of deciduous and evergreen habits in temperate forests. Evolution 20, 1–15 (1966)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Wolfe, J. A. Late Cretaceous-Cenozoic history of deciduousness and the terminal Cretaceous event. Paleobiology 13, 215–226 (1987)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Reich, P. B., Walters, M. B. & Ellsworth, D. S. From tropics to tundra: global convergence in plant functioning. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 94, 13730–13734 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Givnish, T. J. Adaptive significance of evergreen vs. deciduous leaves: solving the triple paradox. Silva Fennica 36, 703–743 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Falcon-Lang, H. J. The relationship between leaf longevity and growth ring markedness in modern conifer woods and its implications for palaeoclimatic studies. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 160, 317–328 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Beerling, D. J. et al. The influence of Carboniferous palaeoatmospheres on plant function: an experimental and modelling assessment. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 353, 131–140 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Sokal, R. R. & Rohlf, F. J. Biometry (W. H. Freeman, New York, 1995)

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  30. Parton, W. J. et al. Observations and modelling of biomass and soil organic matter dynamics for the grassland biome worldwide. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 7, 785–809 (1993)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank S. J. Brentnall for running the USCM simulations, P. J. Valdes for providing the Cretaceous GCM climate, W. G. Chaloner, L. J. Hickey, R. J. Norby, G. R. Upchurch, P. Wilf and F. I. Woodward for comments, and the Royal Society (D.J.B. and C.P.O.), the Leverhulme Trust (D.J.B.), the Natural Environmental Research Council, UK (D.J.B.), the US National Science Foundation (D.L.R.) and the US Department of Energy (R. A. Berner) for financial support.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David J. Beerling.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Royer, D., Osborne, C. & Beerling, D. Carbon loss by deciduous trees in a CO2-rich ancient polar environment. Nature 424, 60–62 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01737

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01737

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing