U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Photosynthetic Capacity of Branches Increases During the Dry Season in a Central Amazon Forest
Published: March 04, 2018
Posted: August 31, 2018

First direct evidence from individual trees that new leaf growth and development cause overall forest green-up.

The Science
Amazon forest ecosystems are observed by satellites to green-up and by flux towers to increase in photosynthetic uptake during the dry season, but the mechanisms for this phenomenon at the tree and leaf scale have been much debated. Here scientists from Brown University and the University of Arizona tested how leaf age-dependent physiology and leaf demography combine to affect photosynthetic capacity of a central Amazon forest during the dry season in a field-based study independent of remote sensing or eddy covariance methods. They found the first direct field evidence that branch-scale photosynthetic capacity increases during the dry season, with a magnitude consistent with increases in ecosystem-scale photosynthetic capacity derived from flux towers.

The Impact
This new study is the first to directly show the mechanistic basis for the much-debated Amazon forest dry season green up phenomenon. It highlights the role of endogenous phenological rhythms — not just seasonal variation in climate drivers — as a key mechanism regulating the seasonality of photosynthesis. This is important because in most Earth system models, the seasonality of tropical evergreen ecosystems is driven by climatic seasonality, not biological phenology, and many of these models do not yet correctly simulate this pattern.  This study thus strongly supports the incorporation of leaf phenology into Earth system models as a means to represent our best understanding of the key processes regulating photosynthesis.

The research team conducted demographic surveys of leaf age composition, and measured age-dependence of leaf physiology in broadleaf canopy trees of abundant species at a central eastern Amazon site. Using a novel leaf-to-branch scaling approach, they used this data to independently test the much-debated hypothesis—arising from satellite and tower-based observations—that leaf phenology could explain the forest-scale pattern of dry season photosynthesis.  They found that photosynthetic capacity, as indicated by parameters of biochemical limitations on photosynthesis (Vcmax, Jmax, and TPU), was higher in recently matured leaves than either young or old leaves, and stomatal conductance was higher for recently matured leaves than old leaves. Most tree branches had several different leaf age categories simultaneously present, and the number of recently mature leaves on branches of our focal trees increased as the dry season progressed (before October 15 versus after October 15), as old leaves were exchanged for young leaves that then matured. Together, these findings suggest that aggregated whole-branch Vcmax increases during the dry season, with a magnitude consistent with increases in ecosystem-scale photosynthetic capacity observed from flux towers.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover

(PI Contact)
Lead author contact information 
Loren Albert
Brown University

Institutional contact 
Scott Saleska 
University of Arizona 

This project received U.S. DOE support through GoAmazon, award DE-SC0008383. It was also supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) (award OISE-0730305 to S. Saleska), the Philecology Foundation through University of Arizona Biosphere 2 and a Marshall Foundation of Arizona dissertation fellowship to L.P. Albert.  J. Wu was supported in part by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE-Tropics) project of DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

Albert, L.P., J. Wu, N. Prohaska, P.B. de Camargo, T.E. Huxman, E.S. Tribuzy, V.Y. Ivanov, R.S. Oliveira, S. Garcia, M.N. Smith, R.C. Oliviera, Jr., N. Restrepo-Coupe, R. da Silva, S.C. Stark, G.A. Martins, D.V. Penha, S.R. Saleska. ”Age-dependent leaf physiology and consequences for crown-scale carbon uptake during the dry season in an Amazon evergreen forest.” New Phytologist. 219, 870-884 (2018). [DOI: 10.1111/nph.15056]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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