Plant allometry: is there a grand unifying theory?


*Address for correspondence: Karl J. Niklas, Department of Plant Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 14853, USA. Tel: + 01 607 255 8727; fax: +01 607 255 5407.


The study of size and its biological consequences – called allometry – has fascinated biologists for centuries. Recent advances in this area of study have stimulated a renewed interest in these scaling phenomena, especially in terms of the search for mechanistic explanations that transcend mere descriptive phenomenology. These advances are reviewed in the context of plant biology. Allometric derivations are presented that predict how annual growth in total body biomass is partitioned to construct new leaf, stem, and root tissues at the level of an individual plant. Derivations are also presented to predict annual reproductive effort and to predict how the biomass of body parts changes as a function of the number of plants per unit area in communities. The predictions emerging from these derivations are then examined empirically by comparing predicted and observed scaling exponents for each relationship using a world-wide data compendium gathered from the primary literature. These comparisons provide strong statistical support for each of the allometric predictions. This support is taken as evidence that a general unifying allometric theory for plant biology is near at hand. Nevertheless, the validation of this theory requires much additional work and raises a number of procedural and conceptual concerns that must be resolved before a single‘global’theory is accepted.