Spatial distributions of understory light along the grassland/forest continuum: Effects of cover, height, and spatial pattern of tree canopies

Scott N. Martens, David D. Breshears, Clifton W. Meyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

146 Scopus citations


The understory light environment is a key determinant of vegetation pattern and ecosystem processes, and varies spatially perhaps more than any resource used by plants. Understory light varies along gradients of vegetation structure that range from grassland with no woody canopy cover to forest with nearly complete woody canopy cover. Spatial variability in understory light is largely determined by several characteristics of overstory plants - spatial pattern, height, and cover - which vary concurrently along the grassland/forest continuum. Using a spatially-explicit ray-tracing model, we quantified trends in mean and variance of understory light along the continuum. We modeled understory light over a growing season for two types of plots: (1) generated plots in which cover, spatial pattern, and height of trees were varied systematically, and (2) three actual plots using stand data from pinon-juniper woodland sites for which cover, spatial pattern and height varied concurrently. Mean understory light decreased with increasing canopy cover and was sensitive to changes in height, as expected, but was not sensitive to spatial pattern. Variance in understory light was maximum at an intermediate value of cover that was dependent on both spatial pattern and cover - maximum variance occurred at lower values of cover as height increased and as spatial pattern progressed from regular to random to aggregated. These trends in the overall patterns of understory light were also examined with respect to changes in understory light in canopy and intercanopy locations. Variance in understory light for intercanopy locations was less than that for canopy locations at low canopy cover, but exceeded that for canopy locations as canopy cover increased. The value of canopy cover at which variance in intercanopy locations exceeded that in canopy locations was sensitive to variation in height but not in spatial pattern. The distributions of understory light for the actual plots were generally similar to those for corresponding generated plots, with dissimilarities attributable to differences in cover and height. The general trends highlighted by our simulations are broadly applicable to sites along the grassland/forest continuum.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-93
Number of pages15
JournalEcological Modelling
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2000


  • Canopy microclimate
  • Photosynthetically active radiation
  • Ray tracing
  • Savanna
  • Shading
  • Solar radiation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecological Modeling


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