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Ecology. 2009 Apr;90(4):1021-9.

Contribution of sunflecks is minimal in expanding shrub thickets compared to temperate forest.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia 23284, USA.


Ecological consequences of shrub encroachment are emerging as a key issue in the study of global change. In mesic grasslands, shrub encroachment can result in a fivefold increase in ecosystem leaf area index (LAI) and a concurrent reduction in understory light and herbaceous diversity. LAI and light attenuation are often higher for shrub thickets than for forest communities in the same region, yet little is known about the contribution of sunflecks in shrub-dominated systems. Our objective was to compare fine-scale spatial and temporal dynamics of understory light in shrub thickets to the light environment in typical forest communities. We used an array of quantum sensors to examine variation in diffuse and direct light and determined the relative contribution of sunflecks during midday in Morella cerifera shrub thickets, a 30-yr-old abandoned Pinus taeda plantation, and a mature, second-growth, deciduous forest. Instantaneous photosynthetic photon flux density (PPFD) was measured at 1-s intervals at five sites in each community during midday. In summer, understory light during midday in shrub thickets was approximately 0.8% of above-canopy light, compared to 1.9% and 5.4% in pine and deciduous forests, respectively. During summer, PPFD was uncorrelated between sensors as close as 0.075 m in shrub thickets compared to 0.175 m and 0.900 m in pine and deciduous forests, respectively, indicating that sunflecks in shrub thickets were generally small compared to sunflecks in the two forests. Sunflecks in shrub thickets were generally short (all <30 s) and relatively low in intensity (<150 micromol photons x m(-2) x s(-1)) and contributed only 5% of understory light during midday. Sunflecks were longer (up to 6 minutes) and more intense (up to 350 micromol photons x m(-2) x s(-1)) in the two forest communities and Contributed 31% and 22% of understory light during midday in pine and deciduous forest, respectively. The combination of high LAI and relatively short-stature of M. cerifera shrub thickets produces a dense canopy that reduces both diffuse light and the occurrence of sunflecks. The lack of sunflecks may limit the number of microsites with a favorable light environment and contribute to the reduction in understory cover and diversity within the shrub thickets.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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