An exceptional role for flowering plant physiology in the expansion of tropical rainforests and biodiversity

C. Kevin Boyce, Jung-Eun Lee

Abstract

Movement of water from soil to atmosphere by plant transpiration can feed precipitation, but is limited by the hydraulic capacities of plants, which have not been uniform through time. The flowering plants that dominate modern vegetation possess transpiration capacities that are dramatically higher than any other plants, living or extinct. Transpiration operates at the level of the leaf, however, and how the impact of this physiological revolution scales up to the landscape and larger environment remains unclear. Here, climate modelling demonstrates that angiosperms help ensure aseasonally high levels of precipitation in the modern tropics. Most strikingly, replacement of angiosperm with non-angiosperm vegetation would result in a hotter, drier and more seasonal Amazon basin, decreasing the overall area of ever-wet rainforest by 80 per cent. Thus, flowering plant ecological dominance has strongly altered climate and the global hydrological cycle. Because tropical biodiversity is closely tied to precipitation and rainforest area, angiosperm climate modification may have promoted diversification of the angiosperms themselves, as well as radiations of diverse vertebrate and invertebrate animal lineages and of epiphytic plants. Their exceptional potential for environmental modification may have contributed to divergent responses to similar climates and global perturbations, like mass extinctions, before and after angiosperm evolution.

Footnotes

  • The authors contributed equally to this work.

  • Received March 7, 2010.
  • Accepted May 25, 2010.
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