The scaling of leaf area and mass: The cost of light interception increases with leaf size

Rubén Milla, Peter B Reich

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169 Scopus citations


For leaves, the light-capturing surface area per unit dry mass investment (specific leaf area, SLA) is a key trait from physiological, ecological and biophysical perspectives. To address whether SLA declines with leaf size, as hypothesized due to increasing costs of support in larger leaves, we compiled data on intraspecific variation in leaf dry mass (LM) and leaf surface area (LA) for 6334 leaves of 157 species. We used the power function LM = α LA β to test whether, within each species, large leaves deploy less surface area per unit dry mass than small leaves. Comparing scaling exponents (β) showed that more species had a statistically significant decrease in SLA as leaf size increased (61) than the opposite (7) and the average β was significantly greater than 1 (βmean = 1.10, 95% CI 1.08-1.13). However, scaling exponents varied markedly from the few species that decreased to the many that increased SLA disproportionately fast as leaf size increased. This variation was unrelated to growth form, ecosystem of origin or climate. The average within-species tendency found here (allometric decrease of SLA with leaf size, averaging 13%) is in accord with concurrent findings on global-scale trends among species, although the substantial scatter around the central tendency suggests that the leaf size dependency does not obligately shape SLA. Nonetheless, the generally greater mass per unit leaf area of larger than smaller leaves directly translates into a greater cost to build and maintain a unit of leaf area, which, all else being equal, should constrain the maximum leaf size displayed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2109-2114
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1622
StatePublished - Sep 7 2007


  • Allometry
  • Leaf area
  • Leaf mass
  • Power laws
  • Scaling
  • Specific leaf area


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