Leaf lifespan as a determinant of leaf structure and function among 23 amazonian tree species

P. B. Reich, C. Uhl, M. B. Walters, D. S. Ellsworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

516 Scopus citations


The relationships between resource availability, plant succession, and species' life history traits are often considered key to understanding variation among species and communities. Leaf lifespan is one trait important in this regard. We observed that leaf lifespan varies 30-fold among 23 species from natural and disturbed communities within a 1-km radius in the northern Amazon basin, near San Carlos de Rio Negro, Venezuela. Moreover, leaf lifespan was highly correlated with a number of important leaf structural and functional characterisues. Stomatal conductance to water vapor (g) and both mass and area-based net photosynthesis decreased with increasing leaf lifespan (r2=0.74, 0.91 and 0.75, respectively). Specific leaf area (SLA) also decreased with increasing leaf lifespan (r2=0.78), while leaf toughness increased (r2=0.62). Correlations between leaf lifespan and leaf nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations were moderate on a weight basis and not significant on an area basis. On an absolute basis, changes in SLA, net photosynthesis and leaf chemistry were large as leaf lifespan varied from 1.5 to 12 months, but such changes were small as leaf lifespan increased from 1 to 5 years. Mass-based net photosynthesis (A/mass) was highly correlated with SLA (r2=0.90) and mass-based leaf nitrogen (N/mass) (r2=0.85), but area-based net photosynthesis (A/area) was not well correlated with any index of leaf structure or chemistry including N/area. Overall, these results indicate that species allocate resources towards a high photosynthetic assimilation rate for a brief time, or provide resistant physical structure that results in a lower rate of carbon assimilation over a longer time, but not both.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16-24
Number of pages9
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 1991


  • Amazon
  • Leaf lifespan
  • Nitrogen
  • Photosynthesis
  • Specific leaf area


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