Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Forest Science (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Molly A. Cavaleri


Patterns of increasing leaf mass per area (LMA), area-based leaf nitrogen (Narea), and carbon isotope composition (δ13C) with increasing height in the canopy have been attributed to light gradients or hydraulic limitation in tall trees. Theoretical optimal distributions of LMA and Narea that scale with light maximize canopy photosynthesis; however, sub-optimal distributions are often observed due to hydraulic constraints on leaf development. Using observational, experimental, and modeling approaches, we investigated the response of leaf functional traits (LMA, density, thickness, and leaf nitrogen), leaf carbon isotope composition (δ13C), and cellular structure to light availability, height, and leaf water potential (Ψl) in an Acer saccharum forest to tease apart the influence of light and hydraulic limitations. LMA, leaf and palisade layer thickness, and leaf density were greater at greater light availability but similar heights, highlighting the strong control of light on leaf morphology and cellular structure. Experimental shading decreased both LMA and area-based leaf nitrogen (Narea) and revealed that LMA and Narea were more strongly correlated with height earlier in the growing season and with light later in the growing season. The supply of CO2 to leaves at higher heights appeared to be constrained by stomatal sensitivity to vapor pressure deficit (VPD) or midday leaf water potential, as indicated by increasing δ13C and VPD and decreasing midday Ψl with height. Model simulations showed that daily canopy photosynthesis was biased during the early growing season when seasonality was not accounted for, and was biased throughout the growing season when vertical gradients in LMA and Narea were not accounted for. Overall, our results suggest that leaves acclimate to light soon after leaf expansion, through an accumulation of leaf carbon, thickening of palisade layers and increased LMA, and reduction in stomatal sensitivity to Ψl or VPD. This period of light acclimation in leaves appears to optimize leaf function over time, despite height-related constraints early in the growing season. Our results imply that vertical gradients in leaf functional traits and leaf acclimation to light should be incorporated in canopy function models in order to refine estimates of canopy photosynthesis.