Insights on the evolution of plant succulence from a remarkable radiation in Madagascar (Euphorbia)

Margaret Evans, Xavier Aubriot, David Hearn, Maxime Lanciaux, Sebastien Lavergne, Corinne Cruaud, Porter P. Lowry, Thomas Haevermans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Patterns of adaptation in response to environmental variation are central to our understanding of biodiversity, but predictions of how and when broad-scale environmental conditions such as climate affect organismal form and function remain incomplete. Succulent plants have evolved in response to arid conditions repeatedly, with various plant organs such as leaves, stems, and roots physically modified to increase water storage. Here, we investigate the role played by climate conditions in shaping the evolution of succulent forms in a plant clade endemic to Madagascar and the surrounding islands, part of the hyper-diverse genus Euphorbia (Euphorbiaceae).We used multivariate ordination of 19 climate variables to identify links between particular climate variables and threemajor forms of succulence - succulent leaves, cactiformstem succulence, and tubers. We then tested the relationship between climatic conditions and succulence, using comparative methods that account for shared evolutionary history. We confirm that plant water storage is associated with the two components of aridity, temperature, and precipitation. Cactiform stem succulence, however, is not prevalent in the driest environments, countering the widely held view of cactiforms as desert icons. Instead, leaf succulence and tubers are significantly associated with the lowest levels of precipitation. Our findings provide a clear link between broad-scale climatic conditions and adaptation in land plants, and newinsights into the climatic conditions favoring different forms of succulence. This evidence for adaptation to climate raises concern over the evolutionary future of succulent plants as they, along with other organisms, face anthropogenic climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)698-711
Number of pages14
JournalSystematic biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2014


  • Adaptation
  • Climate
  • Comparative analysis
  • Euphorbia
  • Ordination
  • Phylogeny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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