Evolution of developmental potential and the multiple independent origins of leaves in Paleozoic vascular plants
Four vascular plant lineages, the ferns, sphenopsids, progymnosperms, and seed plants, evolved laminated leaves in the Paleozoic. A principal coordinate analysis of 641 leaf species from North American and European floras ranging in age from Middle Devonian through the end of the Permian shows that the clades followed parallel trajectories of evolution: each clade exhibits rapid radiation of leaf morphologies from simple (and similar) forms in the Late Devonian/Early Carboniferous to diverse, differentiated leaf forms, with strong constraint on further diversification beginning in the mid Carboniferous. Similar morphospace trajectories have been documented in studies of morphological evolution in animals; however, plant fossils present unique opportunities for understanding the developmental processes that underlie such patterns. Detailed comparison of venation in Paleozoic leaves with that of modern leaves for which developmental mechanisms are known suggests developmental interpretations for the origination and early evolution of leaves. The parallel evolution of a marginal meristem by the modification of developmental mechanisms available in the common ancestor of all groups resulted in the pattern of leaf evolution repeated by each clade. Early steps of leaf evolution were followed by constraint on further diversification as the possible elaborations of marginal growth were exhausted. Hypotheses of development in Paleozoic leaves can be tested by the study of living plants with analogous leaf morphologies.