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Rev Palaeobot Palynol. 1998 Jul;102(1-2):1-14.

The influence of gravity and wind on land plant evolution.

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  • Section of Plant Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA. kjn2@cornell.edu


Aspects of the engineering theory treating the elastic stability of vertical stems and cantilevered leaves supporting their own weight and additional wind-induced forces (drag) are reviewed in light of biomechanical studies of living and fossil terrestrial plant species. The maximum height to which arborescent species can grow before their stems elastically buckle under their own weight is estimated by means of the Euler-Greenhill formula which states that the critical buckling height scales as the 1/3 power of plant tissue-stiffness normalized with respect to tissue bulk density and as the 2/3 power of stem diameter. Data drawn from living plants indicate that progressively taller plant species employ stiffer and lighter-weight plant tissues as the principal stiffening agent in their vertical stems. The elastic stability of plants subjected to high lateral wind-loadings is governed by the drag torque (the product of the drag force and the height above ground at which this force is applied), which cannot exceed the gravitational bending moment (the product of the weight of aerial organs and the lever arm measured at the base of the plant). Data from living plants indicate that the largest arborescent plant species rely on massive trunks and broad, horizontally expansive root crowns to resist drag torques. The drag on the canopies of these plants is also reduced by highly flexible stems and leaves composed of tissues that twist and bend more easily than tissues used to stiffen older, more proximal stems. A brief review of the fossil record suggests that modifications in stem, leaf, and root morphology and anatomy capable of simultaneously coping with self-weight and wind-induced drag forces evolved by Devonian times, suggesting that natural selection acting on the elastic stability of sporophytes occurred early in the history of terrestrial plants.

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