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Evolution Gets Colorful August 24, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Environment, Evolution, Tough Stuff.
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Summer is still going strong but soon it will be fall – a time when we can enjoy the pretty autumn leaves. Or as I always like to do, throw leaves at my wee dog and race through the massive piles of foliage.

Unless you’ve traveled a bit and have a sharp eye for detail, you might not have noticed that autumn leaves are usually red in America but yellow in Europe. Seems strange, doesn’t it? If you’re wondering why, then you’re not the only one. Two professors thought about these differences too and they came up with a cool theory.

Prof. Simcha Lev-Yadun of the Department of Science Education at the University of Haifa-Oranim in Israel and Prof. Jarmo Holopainen of the University of Kuopio in Finland had their work published in New Phytologist.

Stepping Back In Time

Red leaves in America serve as a warning flag to ward off insects. But in Europe, none of these evolutionary 'tricks' are needed, which means leaves are yellow.

To find out more, we have to step back 35 million years to sort out the mystery. Up until that time, huge areas of the globe were rich in evergreen forests. Then, a bunch of ice ages and dry spells came into the picture. Lots of the tree species evolved to become deciduous – meaning they lose their leaves depending on the season. Some trees even started to produce red leaves to keep the pesky insects away. But, something else came into play and you might be surprised to learn just what it was!

Look To The Mountains

It’s true. We have to check out the orientation of the mountains to get the scoop on why the leaves evolved to be red in America but yellow in Europe. In North America, north-to-south mountain chains created a protected area, enabling the plants and animals to migrate south or north. Joining them were the insects. So, the leaves in America remained red to continue warding off these annoying bugs.

But in Europe, the mountains are oriented from east-to-west, leaving no protected areas as the ice and other environmental conditions came to visit. Loads of the tree species just couldn’t survive the extreme cold. When they died, so did those insects that needed the trees for their survival. By the time the ice ages were over, those trees that had managed to survive didn’t have to deal with the now-extinct insects. So, no need for red leaves to keep them away!

Curious Minds Want To Know

I asked Simcha Lev-Yadun how he ended up studying leaves. While my background is in the life sciences (medicine and nutrition), I always wonder how people end up in the many different, neat areas of science. He explained:

I wanted to be a biologist and archaeologist since I was ten years old. For me, science is a lifestyle, not a job. At the age of 57…I look backwards and see that I made the right decision.

He also shared his plans to meet up in Scandinavia with his colleague Jarmo Holopainen, where they hope to find out even more about why plants have such cool and different colors.

My Wishful Thinking

While my dog Tiko probably doesn’t care much about leaf color when he dashes through the crisp autumn leaves, I like to understand what makes one leaf a bright yellow and another a brilliant red. Now, if only leaves could somehow evolve to become fluorescent pink, my favorite color. Somehow though, I just don’t see it happening!

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