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1 October 2007 What Do Red and Yellow Autumn Leaves Signal
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Abstract

The widespread phenomenon of red and yellow autumn leaves has recently attracted considerable scientific attention. The fact that this phenomenon is so prominent in the cooler, temperate regions and less common in warmer climates is a good indication of a climate-specific effect. In addition to the putative multifarious physiological benefits, such as protection from photoinhibition and photo-oxidation, several plant/animal interaction functions for such coloration have been proposed. These include (1) that the bright leaf colors may signal frugivores about ripe fruits (fruit flags) to enhance seed dispersal; (2) that they signal aphids that the trees are well defended (a case of Zahavi's handicap principle operating in plants); (3) that the coloration undermines herbivore insect camouflage; (4) that they function according to the “defense indication hypothesis,” which states that red leaves are chemically defended because anthocyanins correlate with various defensive compounds; or (5) that because sexual reproduction advances the onset of leaf senescence, the pigments might indicate to sucking herbivores that the leaves have low amounts of resources. Although the authors of hypotheses 3, 4, and 5 did not say that bright autumn leaves are aposematic, since such leaves are chemically defended, unpalatable, or both, we suggest that they are indeed aposematic. We propose that in addition to the above-mentioned hypotheses, autumn colors signal to herbivorous insects about another defensive plant property: the reliable, honest, and critical information that the leaves are about to be shed and may thus cause their mortality. We emphasize that all types of defensive and physiological functions of autumn leaves may operate simultaneously.

Simcha Lev-Yadun and Kevin S. Gould "What Do Red and Yellow Autumn Leaves Signal," The Botanical Review 73(4), 279-289, (1 October 2007). https://doi.org/10.1663/0006-8101(2007)73[279:WDRAYA]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2007
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