New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2007) 31(2): 245- 254

Leaf heteroblasty is not an adaptation to shade: seedling anatomical and physiological responses to light

Research Article
Harshi K. Gamage 1*
Linley Jesson 1,2
  1. School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand
  2. Present address: Department of Biology, University of New Brunswick, PO Bag Service 45111, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada
  3. Corresponding author: Present address: School of Integrative Biology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia
*  Corresponding author

Heteroblastic plants produce markedly different leaf morphologies between juvenile and adult stages, while homoblastic plants exhibit little or gradual changes. We tested the hypothesis that the leaf morphology of the seedling stage of New Zealand heteroblastic species is advantageous in dealing with low light levels found in forest understorey. We used four independent contrasts of heteroblastic and homoblastic seedlings from the genera Aristotelia, Hoheria, Pseudopanax, and Melicope grown in full-sun (100% sunlight) and shade (5% sunlight) light environments in a glasshouse. The four heteroblastic species had consistently smaller leaves and lower specific leaf area than their paired homoblastic species both in sun and shade. In the shade, there were no consistent differences in leaf anatomy (thickness of leaf blade, cuticle, epidermis, and palisade mesophyll, and stomatal density × stomatal aperture length) or physiology (maximum photosynthetic rate, dark respiration, and light compensation point) between homoblastic and heteroblastic species. However, in the sun, heteroblastic A. fruticosa, P. crassifolius, and M. simplex had appreciably thicker leaf blades as well as higher maximum photosynthetic rates than their homoblastic congeners. These traits suggest heteroblastic seedlings possess leaf traits associated with an advantage in high-light environments. We conclude that the heteroblastic seedling leaf morphology is unlikely to be an adaptation to very low light. Alternative explanations for the functional significance of changing leaf morphology in association with life-stage should be sought.