During the late Paleozoic, vascular land plants (tracheophytes) diversified into a remarkable variety of morphological types, ranging from tiny, aphyllous, herbaceous forms to giant leafy trees. Leaf shape is a key determinant of both function and structural diversity of plants, but relatively little is known about the tempo and mode of leaf morphological diversification and its correlation with tracheophyte diversity and abiotic changes during this remarkable macroevolutionary event, the greening of the continents. We use the extensive record of Paleozoic tracheophytes from South China to explore models of morphological evolution in early land plants. Our findings suggest that tracheophyte leaf disparity and diversity were decoupled, and that they were under different selective regimes. Two key phases in the evolution of South Chinese tracheophyte leaves can be recognized. In the first phase, from Devonian to Mississippian, taxic diversity increased substantially, as did leaf disparity, at the same time as they acquired novel features in their vascular systems, reproductive organs, and overall architecture. The second phase, through the Carboniferous-Permian transition, saw recovery of wetland communities in South China, associated with a further expansion of morphologies of simple leaves and an offset shift in morphospace occupation by compound leaves. Comparison with Euramerica suggests that the floras from South China were unique in several ways. The Late Devonian radiation of sphenophyllaleans contributed significantly to the expansion of leaf morphospace, such that the evolution of large laminate leaves in this group occurred much earlier than those in Euramerica. The Pennsylvanian decrease in taxic richness had little effect on the disparity of compound leaves. Finally, the distribution in morphospace of the Permian pecopterids, gigantopterids, and equisetaleans occurred at the periphery of Carboniferous leaf morphospace.
- Floral provinciality
- Leaf morphology