Ecology letters (2010) 13: 175–183
Angiosperm evolution transformed global ecology, and much of this impact derives from the unrivalled vegetative productivity of dominant angiosperm clades. However, the origins of high photosynthetic capacity in angiosperms remain unknown. In this study, we describe the steep trajectory of leaf vein density (Dv) evolution in angiosperms, and predict that this leaf plumbing innovation enabled a major shift in the capacity of leaves to assimilate CO2. Reconstructing leaf vein evolution from an examination of 504 angiosperm species we found a rapid three- to fourfold increase in Dv occurred during the early evolution of angiosperms. We demonstrate how this major shift in leaf vein architecture potentially allowed the maximum photosynthetic capacity in angiosperms to rise above competing groups 140–100 Ma. Our data suggest that early terrestrial angiosperms produced leaves with low photosynthetic rates, but that subsequent angiosperm success is linked to a surge in photosynthetic capacity during their early diversification.