Sunflecks in trees and forests: from photosynthetic physiology to global change biology
Sunflecks are brief, intermittent periods of high photon flux density (PFD) that can significantly improve carbon gain in shaded forest understories and lower canopies of trees. In this review, we discuss the physiological basis of leaf-level responses to sunflecks and the mechanisms plants use to tolerate sudden changes in PFD and leaf temperature induced by sunflecks. We also examine the potential effects of climate change stresses (including elevated temperatures, rising CO2 concentrations and drought) on the ability of tree species to use sunflecks, and advocate more research to improve our predictions of seedling and tree carbon gain in future climates. Lastly, while we have the ability to model realistic responses of photosynthesis to fluctuating PFD, dynamic responses of photosynthesis to sunflecks are not accounted for in current models of canopy carbon uptake, which can lead to substantial overestimates of forest carbon fixation. Since sunflecks are a critical component of seasonal carbon gain for shaded leaves, sunfleck regimes and physiological responses to sunflecks should be incorporated into models to more accurately capture forest carbon dynamics.