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Plant Adaptations to Life on Land

13 November, 2015 - 17:23

As organisms adapt to life on land, they have to contend with several challenges in the terrestrial environment. Water has been described as “the stuff of life.” The cell’s interior—the medium in which most small molecules dissolve and diffuse, and in which the majority of the chemical reactions of metabolism take place—is a watery soup. Desiccation, or drying out, is a constant danger for an organism exposed to air. Even when parts of a plant are close to a source of water, their aerial structures are likely to dry out. Water provides buoyancy to organisms that live in aquatic habitats. On land, plants need to develop structural support in air—a medium that does not give the same lift. Additionally, the male gametes must reach the female gametes using new strategies because swimming is no longer possible. Finally, both gametes and zygotes must be protected from drying out. The successful land plants evolved strategies to deal with all of these challenges, although not all adaptations appeared at once. Some species did not move far from an aquatic environment, whereas others left the water and went on to conquer the driest environments on Earth.

To balance these survival challenges, life on land offers several advantages. First, sunlight is abundant. On land, the spectral quality of light absorbed by the photosynthetic pigment, chlorophyll, is not filtered out by water or competing photosynthetic species in the water column above. Second, carbon dioxide is more readily available because its concentration is higher in air than in water. Additionally, land plants evolved before land animals; therefore, until dry land was colonized by animals, no predators threatened the well-being of plants. This situation changed as animals emerged from the water and found abundant sources of nutrients in the established flora. In turn, plants evolved strategies to deter predation: from spines and thorns to toxic chemicals.

The early land plants, like the early land animals, did not live far from an abundant source of water and developed survival strategies to combat dryness. One of these strategies is drought tolerance. Mosses, for example, can dry out to a brown and brittle mat, but as soon as rain makes water available, mosses will soak it up and regain their healthy, green appearance. Another strategy is to colonize environments with high humidity where droughts are uncommon. Ferns, an early lineage of plants, thrive in damp and cool places, such as the understory of temperate forests. Later, plants moved away from aquatic environments using resistance to desiccation, rather than tolerance. These plants, like the cactus, minimize water loss to such an extent they can survive in the driest environments on Earth.

In addition to adaptations specific to life on land, land plants exhibit adaptations that were responsible for their diversity and predominance in terrestrial ecosystems. Four major adaptations are found in many terrestrial plants: the alternation of generations, a sporangium in which spores are formed, a gametangium that produces haploid cells, and in vascular plants, apical meristem tissue in roots and shoots.