Stomatal density record of fossil leaves spanning the past 400 Myr supporting the predicted changes in atsmopheric CO2



Changes in land plant function over the Phanerozoic: Reconstructions based on the fossil record

by Beerling D. J.Woodward I. (1997)

David J. Beerling, The University of Sheffield (Sheffield, United Kingdom)

Ian Woodward, The University of Sheffield (Sheffield, United Kingdom)


in Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 124(2):137 – 153 –

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Major fluctuations in the concentrations of atmospheric CO2and O2are predicted by historical long-term carbon and oxygen cycle models of atmospheric evolution and will have impacted directly on past climates, plant function and evolutionary processes.

Here, palaeobotanical evidence is presented from the stomatal density record of fossil leaves spanning the past 400 Myr supporting the predicted changes in atsmopheric CO2.

Evidence from experiments on plants exposed to long-term high CO2environments and the newly assembled fossil data indicate the potential for genetic modification of stomatal characters. The influence of the changes in fossil stomatal characteristics and atmospheric composition on the rates of leaf gas exchange over the course of land plant evolution has been investigated through modelling. Three contrasting eras of plant water economies emerge in the Devonian (high), Carboniferous (low) and from the Upper Jurassic to the present-day (high but declining).

These patterns of change result from structural changes of the leaves and the impact of atmospheric CO2and O2concentrations on RuBisCo function and are consistent with the fossil evidence of sequential appearances of novel plant anatomical changes.

The modelling approach is tested by comparing predicted leaf stable carbon isotope ratios with those measured on fossil plant and organic material. Viewed in a geological context, current and future increases in the concentration of atmospheric CO2might be considered as restoring plant function to that more typically experienced by plants over the majority of their evolutionary history.

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

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

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