Isotopic and morphologic proxies for reconstructing light environment and leaf function of fossil leaves: a modern calibration in the Daintree Rainforest, Australia.Am J Bot. 2020 08; 107(8):1165-1176.AJ
Within closed-canopy forests, vertical gradients of light and atmospheric CO2 drive variations in leaf carbon isotope ratios, leaf mass per area (LMA), and the micromorphology of leaf epidermal cells. Variations in traits observed in preserved or fossilized leaves could enable inferences of past forest canopy closure and leaf function and thereby habitat of individual taxa. However, as yet no calibration study has examined how isotopic, micro- and macromorphological traits, in combination, reflect position within a modern closed-canopy forest or how these could be applied to the fossil record.
Leaves were sampled from throughout the vertical profile of the tropical forest canopy using the 48.5 m crane at the Daintree Rainforest Observatory, Queensland, Australia. Carbon isotope ratios, LMA, petiole metric (i.e., petiole-width2 /leaf area, a proposed proxy for LMA that can be measured from fossil leaves), and leaf micromorphology (i.e., undulation index and cell area) were compared within species across a range of canopy positions, as quantified by leaf area index (LAI).
Individually, cell area, δ13 C, and petiole metric all correlated with both LAI and LMA, but the use of a combined model provided significantly greater predictive power.
Using the observed relationships with leaf carbon isotope ratio and morphology to estimate the range of LAI in fossil floras can provide a measure of canopy closure in ancient forests. Similarly, estimates of LAI and LMA for individual taxa can provide comparative measures of light environment and growth strategy of fossil taxa from within a flora.