Modelling Direct Radiation and Canopy Gap Regimes in Tropical Forests

Toby R. Marthews, David F. R. P. Burslem, Ruth T. Phillips, Christopher E. Mullins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Spatial and temporal variation in the below-canopy light environment of tropical forests is not well known and its measurement is technically challenging. Distributions of gap and understory areas in forests are likewise little known because of the resource requirements of forest structural censuses and a lack of consensus over how gaps should be defined. A basic model of forest structure, based on tree allometries from the 50 ha Forest Dynamics Plot on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama, and a solar positioning algorithm were used to predict spatial and temporal variation in the distribution of direct light at the forest floor. Predicted duration of direct sunlight was then compared with the distribution of gap and understory areas, delimited according to four standard gap definitions, giving predictions for the correspondence between direct light regimes and forest structure. At least 36 percent of the areas of gaps of all sizes was predicted to receive < 1 h of direct sunlight per day, and the understory to receive direct sunlight for >= 1 h per day in up to 15 percent of its area, even when not in proximity to gaps. The predicted distribution of light changed over the course of the year with the greatest spread of light throughout the forest floor coinciding with the months when maximum daily solar elevation peaked. These predictions suggest a partial decoupling of light regimes from canopy structure, with implications for gap definitions, patch models of forest development and current understanding of tree seedling recruitment patterns.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)676-685
Number of pages10
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2008


  • field gap definitions
  • forest dynamics
  • gap models
  • habitat partitioning
  • Panama
  • patch models
  • treefall gaps
  • photon flux-density
  • lowland rain-forest
  • phase regeneration
  • neotropical forest
  • understory light
  • seed dispersal
  • tree diversity
  • French-Guiana
  • Moist forest
  • Dynamics


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