Diverse ecological functions and the convergent evolution of grass awns

Kurt B. Petersen, Elizabeth A. Kellogg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The awn of grasses is a long, conspicuous outgrowth of the floral bracts in a grass spikelet. It is known to impact agricultural yield, but we know little about its broader ecological function, nor the selective forces that lead to its evolution. Grass awns are phenotypically diverse across the extant ~12,000 species of Poaceae. Awns have been lost and gained repeatedly over evolutionary time, between and within lineages, suggesting that they could be under selection and might provide adaptive benefit in some environments. Despite the phylogenetic context, we know of no studies that have tested whether the origin of awns correlates with putative selective forces on their form and function. Presence or absence of awns is not plastic; rather, heritability is high. The awns of grasses often are suggested as adaptations for dispersal, and most experimental work has been aimed at testing this hypothesis. Proposed dispersal functions include soil burial, epizoochory, and aerial orientation. Awns may also protect the seed from drought, herbivores, or fire by helping it become buried in soil. We do not fully understand the fitness or nutrient costs of awn production, but in some species awns function in photosynthesis, providing carbon to the seed. Here we show that awns likely provide an adaptive advantage, but argue that studies on awn function have lacked critical phylogenetic information to demonstrate adaptive convergent evolution, are taxonomically biased, and often lack clear alternative hypotheses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1331-1345
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Journal of Botany
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • Poaceae
  • adaptation
  • agriculture
  • evolutionary ecology
  • exaptation
  • florivory
  • geniculate
  • grass ecology
  • herbivore defence
  • herbivory prevention
  • spikelet


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