The evolution of insular woodiness

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022 Sep 13;119(37):e2208629119. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2208629119. Epub 2022 Sep 6.


Insular woodiness (IW)-the evolutionary transition from herbaceousness toward woodiness on islands-is one of the most iconic features of island floras. Since pioneering work by Darwin and Wallace, a number of drivers of IW have been proposed, such as 1) competition for sunlight requiring plants with taller and stronger woody stems and 2) drought favoring woodiness to safeguard root-to-shoot water transport. Alternatively, IW may be the indirect result of increased lifespan related to 3) a favorable aseasonal climate and/or 4) a lack of large native herbivores. However, information on the occurrence of IW is fragmented, hampering tests of these potential drivers. Here, we identify 1,097 insular woody species on 375 islands and infer at least 175 evolutionary transitions on 31 archipelagos, concentrated in six angiosperm families. Structural equation models reveal that the insular woody species richness on oceanic islands correlates with a favorable aseasonal climate, followed by increased drought and island isolation (approximating competition). When continental islands are also included, reduced herbivory pressure by large native mammals, increased drought, and island isolation are most relevant. Our results illustrate different trajectories leading to rampant convergent evolution toward IW and further emphasize archipelagos as natural laboratories of evolution, where similar abiotic or biotic conditions replicated evolution of similar traits.

Keywords: drought; island syndrome; phylogenetically derived woodiness; secondary woodiness; wood formation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Climate
  • Islands*
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Plants
  • Wood*