The adaptive value of autumn colours—the seasonal production of red anthocyanins observed in many species of trees and shrubs—is still debated. According to the photoprotection hypothesis, anthocyanins protect leaves from photo-inhibition and photo-oxidation at low temperatures, enabling the tree to reabsorb nutrients more efficiently before leaf fall. Hence, the hypothesis predicts that autumn colours are more likely to evolve in species growing in colder environments. We tested this prediction by comparing the climatic parameters of 237 North American tree species. We found that, although species with yellow autumn leaves grow under lower minimum temperatures than species with green leaves, there is no significant difference in temperature between species with red autumn leaves and species with green or yellow autumn leaves. We conclude that, although reabsorbing chlorophyll in autumn, and the consequent unmasking of yellow carotenoids, may be an adaptation to cold temperatures, the production of red anthocyanins is not. Hence, our interspecific comparative analysis does not support the photoprotection hypothesis as an explanation for the evolution of autumn colours.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics