In a recent study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, we investigate the evolution of leaf morphologies and climatic niches in the Proteaceae family. Proteaceae is a Southern Hemisphere family famous especially in Australia and South Africa for their impressive flowers and leaves. They are also tasty – the macademia nut belongs to the Proteaceae as well. Species in the Proteaceae family occur in all kinds of habitats, from montane forests to dry heathlands to tropical rainforests. During their evolution over millions of years, they managed to adapt to these variable and extreme habitats and climates, and their leaves may have helped them doing so. In this study we test whether open (e.g. mediterranean) and closed (e.g. tropical rainforest) habitats have selected for divergent leaf designs. We also show that the combination of certain leaf traits (e.g. small, sclerophyllous leaves with many teeth) in interaction with certain climatic niches (e.g. warm, dry, mediterranean) may increase diversification rates. This could explain some of the spectacular radiations within the family, for example in genus Banksia in Australia, or the Protea in Africa. Last, we show that there is more stochastic evolution of traits and niches in open habitats, which may explain some of the extreme forms and ‘misfits’ we find here. This “disparification” maybe even led to the process of reproductive isolation and speciation, via ecological divergence, and the ~1700 species of Proteaceae we find on Earth.
Onstein, R.E., Jordan, G.J., Sauquet, H., Weston, P.H., Bouchenak-Khelladi, Y., Carpenter, R.J., Linder, H.P. (2016). “Evolutionary radiations of Proteaceae are triggered by the interaction between traits and climates in open habitats.” Global Ecology and Biogeography 25 (10):1239–1251. doi: 10.1111/geb.12481