Leaf reflectance spectra capture the evolutionary history of seed plants

José Eduardo Meireles, Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Philip A. Townsend, Susan Ustin, John A. Gamon, Anna K. Schweiger, Michael E. Schaepman, Gregory P. Asner, Roberta E. Martin, Aditya Singh, Franziska Schrodt, Adam Chlus, Brian C. O'Meara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Leaf reflectance spectra have been increasingly used to assess plant diversity. However, we do not yet understand how spectra vary across the tree of life or how the evolution of leaf traits affects the differentiation of spectra among species and lineages. Here we describe a framework that integrates spectra with phylogenies and apply it to a global dataset of over 16 000 leaf-level spectra (400–2400 nm) for 544 seed plant species. We test for phylogenetic signal in spectra, evaluate their ability to classify lineages, and characterize their evolutionary dynamics. We show that phylogenetic signal is present in leaf spectra but that the spectral regions most strongly associated with the phylogeny vary among lineages. Despite among-lineage heterogeneity, broad plant groups, orders, and families can be identified from reflectance spectra. Evolutionary models also reveal that different spectral regions evolve at different rates and under different constraint levels, mirroring the evolution of their underlying traits. Leaf spectra capture the phylogenetic history of seed plants and the evolutionary dynamics of leaf chemistry and structure. Consequently, spectra have the potential to provide breakthrough assessments of leaf evolution and plant phylogenetic diversity at global scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)485-493
Number of pages9
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank Angela Moles and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the manuscript. This study was funded by the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration through the Dimensions of Biodiversity program (DEB-1342872 grant to JC-B, DEB-1342778 grant to PAT, and DEB-1342823 grant to JAG) and by the National Institute for Mathematical Biology and Synthesis (?Remote Sensing of Biodiversity? working group led by JC-B, JEM, BCO and PAT). The contribution of MES is supported by the University of Zurich Research Priority Program on ?Global Change and Biodiversity?. This publication was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch project ME0-22022 through the Maine Agricultural & Forest Experiment Station. Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Publication Number 3760.


  • evolution
  • leaf spectra
  • phylogenetic signal
  • remote sensing
  • seed plants


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