Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 91–100
The leaf economics spectrum describes biome-invariant scaling functions for leaf functional traits that relate to global primary productivity and nutrient cycling. Here, we develop a comprehensive framework for the origin of this leaf economics spectrum based on venation-mediated economic strategies. We define a standardized set of traits – density, distance and loopiness – that provides a common language for the study of venation. We develop a novel quantitative model that uses these venation traits to model leaf-level physiology, and show that selection to optimize the venation network predicts the mean global trait–trait scaling relationships across 2548 species. Furthermore, using empirical venation data for 25 plant species, we test our model by predicting four key leaf functional traits related to leaf economics: net carbon assimilation rate, life span, leaf mass per area ratio and nitrogen content. Together, these results indicate that selection on venation geometry is a fundamental basis for understanding the diversity of leaf form and function, and the carbon balance of leaves. The model and associated predictions have broad implications for integrating venation network geometry with pattern and process in ecophysiology, ecology and palaeobotany.