, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 183–192 | Cite as

Size matters—a comparison of three methods to assess age- and size-dependent climate sensitivity of trees

  • Mario TrouillierEmail author
  • Marieke van der Maaten-Theunissen
  • Tobias Scharnweber
  • David Würth
  • Andreas Burger
  • Martin Schnittler
  • Martin Wilmking
Original Article


Key message

Changes in tree’s climate sensitivity during their ontogenetic development is best assessed with stem diameter classes, which can be calculated retrospectively from the cumulative ring width.


Climate affects tree growth but the effect size can be modulated by other variables, including tree’s age and size. To assess how climate sensitivity changes over the life of a tree, previous studies mostly stratified trees into age classes, while cambial ring-age stratification (age-band decomposition) was less frequently used. However, trees do not age as other organisms and arguably age is mainly a proxy for size, which in contrast to age has been shown to affect wood anatomy and physiology. Stem diameter classes, calculated from cumulative ring width, could thus facilitate a more direct assessment of size effects. Here we compare these three methods, which differ regarding how they stratify data into age/size classes. We found that using age-band decomposition and cumulative ring-width classes had major advantages over the tree-age method: (a) age and size are decoupled from other temporal changes, like atmospheric CO2 concentration or nitrogen deposition, which excludes potential biases. (b) Shifts in climate sensitivity occur earlier than estimated by the tree-age method. (c) Younger/smaller classes can be assessed. Furthermore, direct comparison supports that size, rather than age, alters climate sensitivity. Therefore, the cumulative ring-width method appears to be the best approach to assess the effect of ontogenetic changes on a tree’s climate sensitivity. Understanding how climate sensitivity changes when trees get older and larger is important for forest ecology and management, climate reconstructions, global carbon models and can help to study age and height limitations of trees.


Dendrochronology Climate sensitivity Tree age Tree height Hydraulic limitation hypothesis 



This project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) within the Research Training Group RESPONSE (DFG RTG 2010). We would like to thank Glenn Juday, Ryan Jess, and Jamie Hollingsworth for supporting our work and their expertise. Furthermore, we thank Jelena Lange, Renate Hefner, Franziska Eichhorn and Brook Anderson for their assistance during fieldwork, and two anonymous reviewers for comments that helped improving an earlier version of this manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

We declare that there are no conflicts of interest.

Data archiving

All data will be uploaded to the international tree-ring database (ITRDB).

Supplementary material

468_2018_1767_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (3.5 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 3598 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Landscape Ecology and Ecosystem Dynamics Working Group, Institute of Botany and Landscape EcologyUniversity of GreifswaldGreifswaldGermany
  2. 2.Forest Growth and Woody Biomass ProductionTU DresdenDresdenGermany
  3. 3.General and Special Botany Working Group, Institute of Botany and Landscape EcologyUniversity of GreifswaldGreifswaldGermany

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