Autotomy in plants: organ sacrifice in oxalis leaves.
Autotomy is a self-defence strategy of sacrificing a body part for survival. This phenomenon is widespread in the animal kingdom (e.g. gecko's tail) but was never reported in plants. In this study, we characterize the autotomy mechanism in the leaves of an invasive plant of South African origin, Oxalis pes-caprae. When the leaves and flowers of this plant are pulled, they break easily at their base, leaving the rest of the plant intact. Microscopic observations of the leaves reveal an area of small cells and a marked notch at this designated breaking point. Mechanical analysis showed that the strength statistics of the petioles follow Weibull's function. A comparison of the function parameters confirmed that strength of the tissue at that point is significantly smaller than at other points along the petiole, while the toughness of the tissue at the notch and at mid-petiole are approximately the same. We conclude that leaf fracture in Oxalis is facilitated by an amplification of the far-field stress in the vicinity of local, but abrupt, geometrical modification in the form of a notch. This presents an autotomy-like defence mechanism which involves the sacrifice of vital organs in order to prevent the uprooting of the whole plant.