Stomatal Density and Environmental Change

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Salix herbacea L.

Stomatal Density Responds to the Glacial Cycle of Environmental Change

by Beerling D.J., Chaloner W.G., Huntley B., Pearson J.A., Tooley M.J. (1993)

in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 251, 133-138.


Examining the response of stomatal density to past changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration helps us to understand how plants adapted to palaeoenvironmental change, and so helps in predicting their response to future global environmental change. Stomatal density is an important physiological parameter that underpins the productivity of terrestrial vegetation by affecting both rate of carbon uptake and water use efficiency.

Previous work on temperate tree species showed a decrease in stomatal density in response to a 60 p.p.m.v. increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration over the past 200 years. However, such a short timespan largely excludes the genetic component of plant adaptation to change in CO2 concentration.

We present the first record of stomatal density from fossil leaves extending over 140 ka. Our record for the arctic-alpine dwarf shrub Salix herbacea L. extends back to the penultimate glacial stage, spanning two intervals when atmospheric CO2 concentration was considerably lower (by ca. 170 p.p.m.v.) than at present.

Our results demonstrate a decrease in stomatal density in response to long-term increases in atmospheric CO2 concentration, and are in accordance with previous short-term observations and experiments. This implies that relaxation of the stress imposed by low atmospheric CO2 concentration has enabled terrestrial plants to exhibit an adaptive response to the other limiting factor of water availability by reducing stomatal density and hence improving water use efficiency.

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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