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Is foliage clumping an outcome of resource limitations within forests?


Foliage clumping is a forest canopy structural feature influencing light interception, the inversion of light interception for estimating leaf area index, and photosynthesis rates. In this study we estimated clumping factor values at the branch level from different heights in broadleaf tree species at four sites in two climatic zones (two sites in dry climate and two sites in humid climate) using laser light. We found that branch level foliage distribution tends to be random at dry sites where water is the main limiting resource, and that foliage aggregation at the top of emergent canopy tops increases with branch height at humid site where competition for light is high. Our results suggest that high competition for light leads to the production of large amounts of leaves grouped together in high irradiance areas of the canopy, even though this significantly reduces the light interception efficiency on a per leaf area basis. A comparison of these results with foliage clumping factor values derived at larger spatial scales for two sites (one dry and one humid) revealed a crossover in the scales at which clumping arises: leaves are essentially clumped at the branch level but much less so at the plot level for the humid site, and leaves are clumped at the plot level but not at the branch level for the dry site. This suggests that the occurrence of foliage clumping may be related to the intensity of resource limitation (light or water in this case) and its availability in 3D space. Additional research is required to confirm the role of environmental conditions in determining foliage clumping across various forest biomes. Further confirmation and understanding of causal relations between abiotic stresses and canopy foliage clumping may lead to significant refinement in forest canopy radiative transfer modelling schemes.

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