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Title: The role of leaf hydraulic function and anatomy in the acclimation of tropical forest trees to drought
Author: Binks, Oliver John
ISNI:       0000 0004 5991 814X
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 2016
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Seasonality in the Amazon Rainforest is predicted to become more extreme, with dry seasons increasing in length and severity, while severe episodic droughts are expected to occur with greater frequency. Drought stress can reduce the capacity of the rainforest to sequester carbon, and severe drought events can switch the region from being a net sink to a temporary source of carbon to the atmosphere. A key component in the drought-induced carbon flux is tree mortality, and there is evidence of strong feedbacks globally and regionally in the Amazon with climate change. Although the exact cause of drought-induced mortality in trees is difficult to ascertain, recent data suggests that reduced functionality of the water transport pathway (hydraulic failure) is an important factor. Hydraulic vulnerability in trees is often assessed using measurements of the capacity of stems and branches to cope with the strongly negative internal water pressures associated with drought. However, leaves play a vital role in protecting the integrity of the ‘upstream’ hydraulic pathway by influencing the rate of transpiration and thus the tension in the water column. Therefore, the physiology of leaves can be informative of, and influence, tree species’ sensitivity to drought. This thesis uses a long-term large-scale rainfall exclusion experiment in the Eastern Amazon to examine the possible link between leaf physiology and drought sensitivity (or tolerance) by different taxa, and the capacity of mature, upper canopy Amazonian trees to respond to drought via plastic changes in leaf physiology. The plasticity in response to experimental drought and the differences between taxa classed as drought-sensitive and drought-resistant based on drought induced mortality records were tested by the study of leaf water relations (Chapter 2), leaf anatomy (Chapter 3) and foliar water uptake (Chapter 4). No consistent differences were found between drought-resistant and drought-sensitive species suggesting that the sensitivity of these species to drought may be due to other aspects of plant physiology. However, a limited response to the imposed drought conditions was detected across all taxa and included reductions of osmotic potential at full turgor and turgor loss point (Chapter 2), and increases in the thickness of the upper epidermis and the leaf internal cavity volume (Chapter 3). Interestingly, drought-sensitive taxa showed more seasonal osmotic adjustment than drought-resistant taxa, indicating that short-term responses to drought (e.g. season) are not representative of the capacity for adjustment in response to long-term water deficits. No significant changes occurred in leaf size, thickness, stomatal and vein density, the quantity of the inner leaf tissues (i.e. the palisade and spongy mesophyll) and mesophyll cell size, in response to the experimental drought. The experiments on foliar water uptake in Chapter 4 revealed that this rarely-considered process occurs in all taxa, but the response to the drought treatment differed among taxa. Using a simple model, foliar water uptake was scaled up to canopy level. Under normal conditions (i.e. no drought) canopy foliar uptake was calculated to be 29.9 ± 2.3 mm year-1 from rainfall alone, but this increased to a maximum of 51.9 ± 2.3 mm year-1 when including the input of dew in the dry season. However, lower water potential in the drought plot causing increased rates of foliar water uptake, led to estimates of 38.7 ± 3.0 mm year-1 (rainfall only) and 68.9 ± 2.9 mm year-1 (including dry season dew). Taken together, these results demonstrate that Amazonian trees show some limited capacity for acclimation to drought through the changes in leaf physiology measured in this thesis. Low turgor loss point is associated with dry climate-adapted plants, so the finding that this parameter reduced in response to the drought reveals some potential for Amazonian trees to acclimate with the predicted changes in moisture availability. However, the limited response of leaf anatomy to long-term drought might suggest that acclimation may only occur within a narrow range. The finding that six common Amazonian tree genera can take water up through their leaves has considerable implications for understanding the Amazon water budget, in terms of the contribution of dew and light rainfall to canopy water status, but also the implications it has for the hydraulic vulnerability of trees in rainforests right across the Amazon basin.
Supervisor: Jackson, Gail ; Mencuccini, Maurizio ; Meir, Patrick Sponsor: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: leaves ; rainforest ; drought ; plant hydraulics