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Renner, Susanne S. and Zohner, Constantin M. (2019): The occurrence of red and yellow autumn leaves explained by regional differences in insolation and temperature. In: New Phytologist, Vol. 224, No. 4: pp. 1464-1471

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Red or yellow autumn leaves have long fascinated biologists, but their geographical concentration in trees in Eastern North America (ENA) has defied evolutionary explanations. In this review, anthocyanins and xanthophylls are discussed in relation to their occurrence in different regions of the Northern Hemisphere, phylogenetic distribution and photoprotective function during the breakdown of chlorophylls. Pigments in senescing leaves that intercept incident light and dissipate the absorbed energy extend the time available for nutrient resorption. Experiments with Arabidopsis have revealed greatest anthocyanin photoprotective function at low temperatures and high light intensities, and high-resolution solar irradiation maps reveal that ENA and Asia receive higher irradiation than does Europe. In addition, ENA experiences higher temperature fluctuations in autumn, resulting in cold snaps during leaf senescence. Under common garden conditions, chlorophyll degradation occurs earlier in ENA species than in their European and East Asian relatives. In combination, strong solar irradiation, temperature fluctuations and, on average, 3-wk shorter vegetation periods of ENA species favour investment in pigments to extend the time for nutrient resorption before abscission, explaining the higher frequency of coloured species in ENA compared to Europe. We end by outlining research that could test this new explanation of bright New England autumns.

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