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To counteract the damage hurricanes have caused to their canopies, trees appear to adjust key characteristics of their newly grown leaves, according to a year-long field study presented at the British Ecological Society's annual conference today.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year, the worst natural disaster on record to affect the U.S. territory, it stripped numerous trees bare of their leaves and consequently disrupted their ability to absorb the light needed for growth and survival.
Ecologists - Clemson - University - Opportunity - Hurricanes
Ecologists from Clemson University took the opportunity to study how hurricanes affect tropical dry forests in the Caribbean and whether trees were capable of compensating for the significant damage by increasing resource acquisition in newly produced leaves.
For the study, the researchers examined the leaves of the 13 most dominant tree species one, eight and twelve months after Hurricane Maria struck and compared them with leaves that were collected before the hurricane. They analysed whether the immediate changes observed in leaves were temporary or maintained over multiple seasons.
Study - Guánica - State - Forest - Puerto
"Our study took us to the Guánica State Forest in southwest Puerto Rico, which comprises one of the best parcels of native dry forest in the Caribbean. Rainfall here is extremely erratic, with huge variability within and between years. The forest also sits on limestone from an ancient coral reef which is extremely porous, meaning trees have little time to capture water as it travels through the underlying rock. As a result, organisms are uniquely adapted to cope with unpredictable water availability", said Tristan Allerton, Ph.D. candidate at Clemson University.
Trees rely on exchanging gas through their leaves, simultaneously collecting CO2 from the atmosphere to convert into energy whilst trying to minimise water loss (leaf-gas exchange). In order to capture maximum leaf-gas exchange rates by trees, the team attached a sensor to new leaves in the forest at several points...
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