Height is more important than light in determining leaf morphology in a tropical forest

Ecology. 2010 Jun;91(6):1730-9. doi: 10.1890/09-1326.1.


Both within and between species, leaf physiological parameters are strongly related to leaf dry mass per area (LMA, g/m2), which has been found to increase from forest floor to canopy top in every forest where it has been measured. Although vertical LMA gradients in forests have historically been attributed to a direct phenotypic response to light, an increasing number of recent studies have provided evidence that water limitation in the upper canopy can constrain foliar morphological adaptations to higher light levels. We measured height, light, and LMA of all species encountered along 45 vertical canopy transects across a Costa Rican tropical rain forest. LMA was correlated with light levels in the lower canopy until approximately 18 m sample height and 22% diffuse transmittance. Height showed a remarkably linear relationship with LMA throughout the entire vertical canopy profile for all species pooled and for each functional group individually (except epiphytes), possibly through the influence of gravity on leaf water potential and turgor pressure. Models of forest function may be greatly simplified by estimating LMA-correlated leaf physiological parameters solely from foliage height profiles, which in turn can be assessed with satellite- and aircraft-based remote sensing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Ecosystem*
  • Light*
  • Plant Leaves / anatomy & histology*
  • Plant Leaves / physiology
  • Trees*
  • Tropical Climate*