Background: Patchy stomatal conductance is a poorly understood and little-studied phenomenon. It is relatively common, yet it appears to be detrimental to water-use efficiency under some conditions and has no immediately obvious physiological function of any kind. Much of the difficulty in studying patchy stomatal conductance is tied to its unpredictability, both in occurrence and in characteristics.
Scope and conclusions: Statistical analyses of the variability of stomatal patchiness reveal remarkable similarities to structures and behaviours found in locally connected networks of dynamic units that perform tasks. Such systems solve problems that reside at the level of the entire network despite the absence of a central processor or a mechanism for directly sharing information over the entire system. Frequently, task performance is emergent, in the sense that no unit independently performs the task. Because each unit in the network can communicate with only its immediate neighbours, problem solving is accomplished by the states of the individual units self-organizing into synchronized, collective patterns. In some cases, patches of states form and move coherently over the network, thus providing a means for distantly separated parts of the network to communicate. Often, exactly what form these patches take and how they move as the units synchronize is highly unpredictable. In analogy with such networks, it is suggested that stomatal patchiness may be a signature that plants optimize gas exchange in a more sophisticated and adaptive manner than if performed by their individual stomata independently.