Leaf development and demography explain photosynthetic seasonality in Amazon evergreen forests

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Science  26 Feb 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6276, pp. 972-976
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad5068

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Leaf seasonality in Amazon forests

Models assume that lower precipitation in tropical forests means less plant-available water and less photosynthesis. Direct measurements in the Amazon, however, show that production remains constant or increases in the dry season. To investigate this mismatch, Wu et al. use tower-based cameras to detect the phenology (i.e., the seasonal patterns) of leaf dynamics in tropical tree crowns in Amazonia, Brazil, and relate this to patterns of CO2 flux. Accounting for age-dependent variation among individual leaves and crowns is necessary for understanding the seasonal dynamics of photosynthesis in the entire ecosystem. Leaf phenology regulates seasonality of the carbon flux in tropical forests across a gradient of climate zones.

Science, this issue p. 972


In evergreen tropical forests, the extent, magnitude, and controls on photosynthetic seasonality are poorly resolved and inadequately represented in Earth system models. Combining camera observations with ecosystem carbon dioxide fluxes at forests across rainfall gradients in Amazônia, we show that aggregate canopy phenology, not seasonality of climate drivers, is the primary cause of photosynthetic seasonality in these forests. Specifically, synchronization of new leaf growth with dry season litterfall shifts canopy composition toward younger, more light-use efficient leaves, explaining large seasonal increases (~27%) in ecosystem photosynthesis. Coordinated leaf development and demography thus reconcile seemingly disparate observations at different scales and indicate that accounting for leaf-level phenology is critical for accurately simulating ecosystem-scale responses to climate change.

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