Spatiotemporal variation in leaf size and shape in response to climate

Yaoqi Li, Dongting Zou, Nawal Shrestha, Xiaoting Xu, Qinggang Wang, Wen Jia, Zhiheng Wang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Citations (Scopus)


Aims Morphological variation of leaves is a key indicator of plant response to climatic change. Leaf size and shape are associated with carbon, water and energy exchange of plants with their environment. However, whether and how leaf size and shape responded to climate change over the past decades remains poorly studied. Moreover, many studies have only explored inter- but not intraspecific variation in leaf size and shape across space and time. Methods We collected >6000 herbarium specimens spanning 98 years (1910-2008) in China for seven representative dicot species and measured their leaf length and width. We explored geographical patterns and temporal trends in leaf size (i.e. leaf length, leaf width and length × width product) and shape (i.e. length/width ratio), and investigated the effects of changes in precipitation and temperature over time and space on the variation in leaf size and shape. Important Findings After accounting for the effects of sampling time, leaf size decreased with latitude for all species combined, but the relationship varied among species. Leaf size and shape were positively correlated with temperature and precipitation across space. After accounting for the effects of sampling locations, leaf size of all species combined increased with time. Leaf size changes over time were mostly positively correlated with precipitation, whereas leaf shape changes were mostly correlated with temperature. Overall, our results indicate significant spatial and temporal intraspecific variation in leaf size and shape in response to climate. Our study also demonstrates that herbarium specimens collected over a considerable period of time provide a good resource to study the impacts of climate change on plant morphological traits.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-96
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Plant Ecology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Climate change
  • Geographical patterns
  • Herbarium specimens
  • Leaf traits
  • Paleo-climate reconstruction

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