Chin J Plant Ecol ›› 2021, Vol. 45 ›› Issue (10): 1154-1172.DOI: 10.17521/cjpe.2020.0405

Special Issue: 生态系统结构与功能

• Reviews • Previous Articles    

Leaf morphological traits: ecological function, geographic distribution and drivers

LI Yao-Qi, WANG Zhi-Heng*()   

  1. Institute of Ecology, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences and Key Laboratory for Earth Surface Processes of the Ministry of Education, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
  • Received:2020-12-07 Accepted:2021-03-25 Online:2021-10-20 Published:2021-05-07
  • Contact: WANG Zhi-Heng
  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China(31988102);National Natural Science Foundation of China(32125026)


Leaf is one of the important organs of plants that facilitates the exchange of water and air with the surrounding environment. The morphological variation of leaves directly affect the physiological and biochemical processes of plants, which also reflects the adaptive strategies of plants to obtain resources. By focusing on several leaf morphological traits, including leaf size, leaf shape, leaf margin (with or without teeth) and leaf type (i.e. single vs. compound leaf), here, we reviewed the relevant research progresses in this field. We summarized the ecological functions of leaf morphological traits, identified their geographical distribution patterns, and explored the underlying environmental drivers, potential ecological interactions, and their effects on ecosystem functioning. We found that the current studies exploring the distribution and determinants of leaf size and leaf margin states mainly focused on single or specific taxon in local regions. Studies have also explored the genetic mechanisms of leaf morphology development. Leaf traits trade off with other functional traits, and their spatial variation is driven by both temperature and water availability. Leaf morphological traits, especially leaf size, influence water and nutrient cycling, reflect the response of communities to climate change, and can be scaled up to predict ecosystem primary productivity. Further studies should pay attention to combine new approaches to obtain unbiased data with high coverage, to explore the long-term adaptive evolution of leaf morphology, and to generalize the scaling in leaf morphology and its effect on ecosystem functioning. Leaf provides an important perspective to understand how plants respond and adapt to environmental changes. Studying leaf morphological traits provides insight into species fitness, community dynamics and ecosystem functioning, and also improves our understanding of the research progresses made in related fields, including plant community ecology and functional biogeography.

Key words: plant traits, leaf size, leaf shape, leaf type, function, environment