UMN research on tree leaves could help environmental protection

The research could help scientists know which plants to add to given climates, which could cut carbon levels.

An up close look at leaves at the Cedar Creek Research center, where Peter Reich conducted research, on Saturday, Sept. 9, in East Bethel.

Courtney Deutz

An up close look at leaves at the Cedar Creek Research center, where Peter Reich conducted research, on Saturday, Sept. 9, in East Bethel.

Kaitlyn Kubat

A new study from a University of Minnesota researcher aims to influence global conservation efforts by investigating some of the smallest parts of forests: leaves.

Published in the September issue of Science magazine, Peter Reich’s research focuses on the environmental factors that determine leaf size, which some experts say is key to environmental protection.

“Leaves are the power source for pretty much everything that happens on earth,” Reich said.

While experts believed for years that water availability and overheating are the main factors that determine leaf size, Reich’s study found that low nighttime temperatures and the likelihood of frost play the biggest roles.

This explains why leaves in more northern regions tend to be small, like pine needles or maple leaves, compared to leaves in tropical climates where some, like banana leaves, can grow up to 9 feet in length, Reich said.

Penn State professor Peter Wilf is one of many researchers worldwide who contributed data to the project. He said studies like this help create models that predict leaf sizes in various climates, which help experts decide what to plant in different environments.

These models also allow for better resource conservation, ensuring natural areas are preserved for years to come, said Bonnie Jacobs, a professor at Southern Methodist University and a contributor to the project. 

Additionally, global vegetation planning efforts also aim to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change, Reich said.

“Everything we need comes from [the environment],” Wilf said.