Intra-annual density fluctuations (IADFs) in tree rings are generally considered structural anomalies caused by deviations from the “normal course” of xylogenesis during the growing season. This definition is based on the bias that, under “normal conditions”, cambial activity stops once a year. Each tree ring can thus be dated to one calendar year, which is one of the principles of dendrochronology. The formation of IADFs can be triggered directly by environmental changes, especially in precipitation and temperature, that affect cambial activity and cell differentiation. It can also be the result of limited photosynthesis, due to defoliation induced by biotic or abiotic constraints.
Often indicated with alternative terms, IADFs were first described in the 1930s, and recently reported for many trees and shrubs from different ecosystems throughout the world, particularly for Mediterranean species. Different types of IADFs have been detected; their formation and structural properties depend on many factors including tree genotype, age, size, rooting depth, habitat, soil, climate, photosynthetic activity, and allocation strategies. Whether IADFs affect the adaptive capability of plants remains, however, unclear.
We provide an overview of the main anatomical features of IADFs and their occurrence in tree rings from various environments and climatic regimes. We propose a simplified way of classifying them and discuss the hypotheses about their functional role and the factors triggering their formation. To understand the ecological role of IADFs better, we recommend a multidisciplinary approach, involving wood anatomy, dendroecology, and stable isotopes, which has already been applied for Mediterranean species. We conclude by considering that IADFs appear to be the “rule” rather than “anomalies” in some ecosystems where they help plants cope with fluctuating environmental conditions. Moreover, their anatomical structure represents a valuable proxy of past climatic conditions at a sub-seasonal resolution and may be relevant to adapt hydraulic functioning of living trees to changing climatic conditions.