Relative importance of photosynthetic physiology and biomass allocation for tree seedling growth across a broad light gradient

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Studies of tree seedling physiology and growth under field conditions provide information on the mechanisms underlying inter- and intraspecific differences in growth and survival at a critical period during forest regeneration. I compared photosynthetic physiology, growth and biomass allocation in seedlings of three shade-tolerant tree species, Virola koschynii Warb., Dipteryxpanamensis (Pittier) Record & Mell and Brosimum alicastrum Swartz., growing across a light gradient created by a forest-pasture edge (0.5 to 67% diffuse transmittance (%T)). Most growth and physiological traits showed nonlinear responses to light availability, with the greatest changes occurring between 0.5 and 20 %T. Specific leaf area (SLA) and nitrogen per unit leaf mass (Nmass) decreased, maximum assimilation per unit leaf area (A area) and area-based leaf N concentration (Narea) increased, and maximum assimilation per unit leaf mass (Amass) did not change with increasing irradiance. Plastic responses in SLA were important determinants of leaf N and Aarea across the gradient. Species differed in magnitude and plasticity of growth; B. alicastrum had the lowest relative growth rates (RGR) and low plasticity. Its final biomass varied only 10-fold across the light gradient. In contrast, the final biomass of D. panamensis and V. koschynii varied by 100- and 50-fold, respectively, and both had higher RGR than B. alicastrum. As light availability increased, all species decreased biomass allocation to leaf tissue (mass and area) and showed a trade-off between allocation to leaf area at a given plant mass (LAR) and net gain in mass per unit leaf area (net assimilation rate, NAR). This trade-off largely reflected declines in SLA with increasing light. Finally, A area was correlated with NAR and both were major determinants of intraspecific variation in RGR. These data indicate the importance of plasticity in photosynthetic physiology and allocation for variation in tree seedling growth among habitats that vary in light availability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)155-167
Number of pages13
JournalTree physiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2004


  • Brosimum alicastrum
  • Costa Rica
  • Dipteryx panamensis
  • Growth response coefficients
  • Leaf nitrogen
  • Natural light gradient
  • Photosynthesis
  • Relative growth rate
  • Tropical rain forest
  • Virola koschnyii


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