Article

Palaeo leaf economics reveal a shift in ecosystem function associated with the end-Triassic mass extinction event

  • Nature Plants 3, Article number: 17104 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nplants.2017.104
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Abstract

Climate change is likely to have altered the ecological functioning of past ecosystems, and is likely to alter functioning in the future; however, the magnitude and direction of such changes are difficult to predict. Here we use a deep-time case study to evaluate the impact of a well-constrained CO2-induced global warming event on the ecological functioning of dominant plant communities. We use leaf mass per area (LMA), a widely used trait in modern plant ecology, to infer the palaeoecological strategy of fossil plant taxa. We show that palaeo-LMA can be inferred from fossil leaf cuticles based on a tight relationship between LMA and cuticle thickness observed among extant gymnosperms. Application of this new palaeo-LMA proxy to fossil gymnosperms from East Greenland reveals significant shifts in the dominant ecological strategies of vegetation found across the Triassic–Jurassic transition. Late Triassic forests, dominated by low-LMA taxa with inferred high transpiration rates and short leaf lifespans, were replaced in the Early Jurassic by forests dominated by high-LMA taxa that were likely to have slower metabolic rates. We suggest that extreme CO2-induced global warming selected for taxa with high LMA associated with a stress-tolerant strategy and that adaptive plasticity in leaf functional traits such as LMA contributed to post-warming ecological success.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to D. Birch and N. Vella for microscopy assistance at Macquarie University Microscopy Unit. We also thank staff at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens (F. Jackson, D. Bidwell and P. Nicolson) and National Botanic Gardens, Ireland (M. Jebb and C. Kelleher) for permission to sample leaf material. K. Ziemińska and T. Tosens helped with queries on plant anatomy. We thank D. Royer and S. Lindström for their comments. We thank L. Furlong for the graphics and J. Elkink for statistical advice. This research is funded by Science Foundation Ireland PI grant (11/P1/1103) (J.C.M., W.K.S., K.L.B, I.J.W.), University College Dublin (SF1036) (W.K.S.), Royal Irish Academy (W.K.S.), Australian Research Council (FT100100910) (I.J.W.) and Macquarie University (I.J.W., T.I.L.).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. School of Biology and Environmental Science, Earth Institute, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

    • W. K. Soh
    •  & J. C. McElwain
  2. Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales 2109, Australia

    • I. J. Wright
    •  & T. I. Lenz
  3. School of Geography, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • K. L. Bacon
  4. Department of Geological Sciences and Bolin Centre for Climate Research, Stockholm University, SE-109 61 Stockholm, Sweden

    • M. Steinthorsdottir
  5. Department of Paleobiology, Swedish Museum of Natural History, SE-104 05 Stockholm, Sweden

    • M. Steinthorsdottir
  6. School of Mathematics & Statistics, Insight Centre for Data Analytics, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

    • A. C. Parnell

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Contributions

W.K.S., I.J.W. and J.C.M. designed the study, interpreted the data and wrote the paper with feedback from all authors; W.K.S. and A.C.P. performed the statistical analyses; W.K.S. and T.I.L. conducted the microscopy work; W.K.S. contributed to the cell-LMA proxy data; K.L.B. contributed to the paleoatmosphere experiment and petiole-LMA proxy results; M.S. contributed to the macrofossil morphotype and herbivory data.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to W. K. Soh.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Text, Supplementary Tables 1–13, Supplementary Figs 1–10, Supplementary References.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    Palaeo LMA proxy data. Dataset 1: cuticle LMA proxy training. Dataset 2: cuticle LMA proxy fossil. Dataset 3: epidermal LMA proxy fossil. Dataset 4: petiole LMA proxy fossil.