Physiological and ecological significance of sunflecks for dipterocarp seedlings

A. D.B. Leakey, J. D. Scholes, M. C. Press

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Irradiance is highly dynamic in many plant canopies. Photosynthesis during sunflecks provides 10-90% of daily carbon gain. The survivorship of tree seedlings in the deeply shaded understorey of tropical rain forests is limited by their ability to maintain a positive carbon balance. Dipterocarp seedlings from the SE Asian rain forest were used as a model system to test novel aspects of the physiological and ecological significance of sunflecks. First, understorey seedlings experienced leaf temperatures up to 38°C in association with sunflecks. Under controlled environment conditions, the inhibition of carbon gain at 38°C, compared with 28°C, was significantly greater during a sequence of sunflecks (-59%), than under uniform irradiance (-40%), providing the same total photosynthetic photon flux density (PPFD). Second, the relative enhancement effects of elevated [CO2] were greater under sunflecks (growth +60%, carbon gain +89%), compared with uniform irradiance (growth +25%, carbon gain +59%), supplying the same daily PPFD. Third, seedling growth rates in the forest understorey were 4-fold greater under a dynamic irradiance treatment characterized by long flecks, compared with a regime of short flecks. Therefore, stresses associated with dynamic irradiance may constrain photosynthetic carbon gain. Additionally, seedling photosynthesis and growth may be more responsive to interactions with abiotic factors, including future changes in climate, than previously estimated. The sensitivity of seedling growth to varying patterns of dynamic irradiance, and the increased likelihood of species-specific responses through interactions with environmental factors, indicates the potential for sunflecks to influence regeneration processes, and hence forest structure and composition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)469-482
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of experimental botany
Issue number411
StatePublished - Jan 2005


  • Dipterocarpaceae
  • Dynamic photosynthesis
  • Elevated CO
  • Forest understorey
  • Heat stress
  • Photorespiration
  • Photosynthetic induction
  • Seedling regeneration
  • Shorea leprosula
  • Stomatal conductance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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