Alluvial fans and debris cones link two zones of the fluvial system (e.g. hillslope gully systems to stream channels; mountain catchment sediment source areas to main river systems or to sedimentary basins) and therefore have important coupling or buffering roles. These roles may be both functional and preservational. The functional role includes debris-cone coupling, which controls sediment supply from hillslope gully systems to stream channels, influencing channel morphology. Coupling through larger alluvial fans, expressed by fanhead trenching, causes a distal shift in sedimentation zones, or when expressed by through-fan trenching, causes complete sediment by-pass. The preservational role stems from the fact that fans and cones are temporary sediment storage zones, and may preserve a record of source–area environmental change more sensitively than would sediments preserved further downsystem. Fan coupling mechanisms include distally-induced coupling (basal scour, ‘toe cutting’, marginal incision) and proximally-induced coupling (fanhead and midfan trenching). These mechanisms lead initially to partial coupling, either extending the immediate sediment source area to the stream system or shifting the focus of sedimentation distally. Complete coupling involves transmission of sediment from the feeder catchment through the fan environment into the downstream drainage or a sedimentary basin. The implications of coupling relate to downstream channel response, fan morphology, sedimentation patterns and vertical sedimentary sequences. Temporal and spatial scales of coupling are related, and with increasing scales the dominant controls shift from storm events to land cover to climatic and base-level change and ultimately to the relationships between tectonics and accommodation space. Finally, future research challenges are identified. Modern dating techniques and sophisticated analysis of remotely sensed data can greatly improve our understanding of fan dynamics, and should lead to better cross-scale integration between short-term process-based approaches and long-term sedimentological applications, while maintaining high quality field-based observations. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.