|Relationships between leaf width and physiological drought potential for six genera of grass.|
No one know exactly what the ancestral grass looked like or the environments it inhabited. But one could imagine a bright, open wet environment with a narrow leaved bunch grass or weakly rhizomatous grass inhabiting it. Some tens of millions of years later the BEP and PACMAD clades would have diverged and the major radiations of grasses still a long way off.
But what were the forces that drove the radiations. Aridity is often cited as one. Fire another. Grazers still a third. But this might be somewhat of a skewed, biased perspective, since there has been little work to characterize the modern ecology of the whole of grasses.
When we look at the global traitscape of grasses, we saw clear patterns for leaf width and drought tolerance. One can imagine some selective force favoring wide-leaved grasses and drought narrow leaved grasses, until an ecological or physiological tradeoff was reached.
But what does the pattern of radiations for individual clades look like?
If I map the distribution of 6 genera in traitspace, clear unique patterns show up. The genus Panicum, for example, has species with wide and narrow leaves, but none that are very drought tolerant. In contrast, Festuca species all have leaves that are narrow, but span the full range of drought tolerance.
We still haven't mapped all this onto a phylogenetic tree. That's coming. But the value of screening programs like this are pretty clear for understanding the ecology and evolution of grasses.
But why the separation among genera? Are individual genera constrained physiologically, or are they constrained evolutionarily by the presence of other species that lead to the apparent differentiations.
Part of what we still need to do is understand the importance of traits such as leaf width and understand the benefits (and constraints) of narrow and wide leaves.