• Background and Aims: Theory for optimal allocation of foliar nitrogen (ONA) predicts that both nitrogen concentration and photosynthetic capacity will scale linearly with gradients of insolation within plant canopies. ONA is expected to allow plants to efficiently use both light and nitrogen. However, empirical data generally do not exhibit perfect ONA, and light-use optimization per se is little explored. The aim was to examine to what degree partitioning of nitrogen or light is optimized in the crowns of three tropical canopy tree species. • Methods: Instantaneous photosynthetic photon flux density (PPFD) incident on the adaxial surface of individual leaves was measured along vertical PPFD gradients in tree canopies at a frequency of 0·5 Hz over 9-17 d, and summed to obtain the average daily integral of PPFD for each leaf to characterize its insolation regime. Also measured were leaf N per area (Narea), leaf mass per area (LMA), the cosine of leaf inclination and the parameters of the photosynthetic light response curve [photosynthetic capacity (Amax), dark respiration (Rd), apparent quantum yield (φ) and curvature (θ)]. The instantaneous PPFD measurements and light response curves were used to estimate leaf daily photosynthesis (A daily) for each leaf. • Key Results: Leaf Narea and Amax changed as a hyperbolic asymptotic function of the PPFD regime, not the linear relationship predicted by ONA. Despite this suboptimal nitrogen partitioning among leaves, Adaily did increase linearly with PPFD regime through co-ordinated adjustments in both leaf angle and physiology along canopy gradients in insolation, exhibiting a strong convergence among the three species. • Conclusions: The results suggest that canopy tree leaves in this tropical forest optimize photosynthetic use of PPFD rather than N per se. Tropical tree canopies then can be considered simple 'big-leaves' in which all constituent 'small leaves' use PPFD with the same photosynthetic efficiency.
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