Mapping the global distribution of C4 vegetation using observations and optimality theory


Plants with the C4 photosynthesis pathway typically respond to climate change differently from more common C3-type plants, due to their distinct anatomical and biochemical characteristics. These different responses are expected to drive changes in global C4 and C3 vegetation distributions. However, current C4 vegetation distribution models may not predict this response as they do not capture multiple interacting factors and often lack observational constraints. Here, we used global observations of plant photosynthetic pathways, satellite remote sensing, and photosynthetic optimality theory to produce an observation-constrained global map of C4 vegetation. We find that global C4 vegetation coverage decreased from 17.7% to 17.1% of the land surface during 2001 to 2019. This was the net result of a reduction in C4 natural grass cover due to elevated CO2 favoring C3-type photosynthesis, and an increase in C4 crop cover, mainly from corn (maize) expansion. Using an emergent constraint approach, we estimated that C4 vegetation contributed 19.5% of global photosynthetic carbon assimilation, a value within the range of previous estimates (18–23%) but higher than the ensemble mean of dynamic global vegetation models (14 ± 13%; mean ± one standard deviation). Our study sheds insight on the critical and underappreciated role of C4 plants in the contemporary global carbon cycle.


© The Author(s) 2024. cc-by



Luo, X., Zhou, H., Satriawan, T.W., Tian, J., Zhao, R., Keenan, T.F., Griffith, D.M., Sitch, S., Smith, N.G., & Still, C.J.. 2024. Mapping the global distribution of C4 vegetation using observations and optimality theory. Nature Communications, 15(1).