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Department ofBotany



No. 363
March 2015


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In This Issue


Vine-Choked Forests Can't Capture Carbon


-Adapted from Smithsonianscience.org

Tropical forests are a sometimes underappreciated asset in the battle against climate change. They cover 7 percent of land surface yet hold more than 30 percent of Earth's terrestrial carbon. As abandoned agricultural land in the tropics is taken over by forests, scientists expect these new forests to mop up industrial quantities of atmospheric carbon. New research by Smithsonian scientists shows increasingly abundant vines could hamper this potential and may even cause tropical forests to lose carbon.

In the first study to experimentally demonstrate that competition between plants can result in ecosystem-wide losses of forest carbon, scientists working in Panama showed that lianas, or woody vines, can reduce net forest biomass accumulation by nearly 20 percent. Researchers called this estimate "conservative" in findings published in Ecology.

"This paper represents the first experimental quantification of the effects of lianas on biomass," said lead author Stefan Schnitzer, a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "As lianas increase in tropical forests, they will lower the capacity for tropical forests to accumulate carbon."

A lionfish in Bocas del Toro (Photo by Andrew Sellers)

Stefan Schnitzer at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama

Previous research by Schnitzer and others demonstrated that lianas are increasing in tropical forests around the globe. No one knows why. Decreased rainfall is one suspect, but lianas, which are generally more drought-tolerant than trees, are increasing in abundance even in rainforests that have not experienced apparent changes in weather patterns.

Lianas climb trees to reach the forest canopy where their leaves blot out the sunlight required for tree growth. They account for up to 25 percent of the woody plants in a typical tropical forest, but only a few percent of its carbon. They do not compensate for displaced carbon due to relatively low wood volume, low wood density and a high rate of turnover.

Machetes in hand, Schnitzer and colleagues chopped lianas out of forest plots for this study. After collecting eight years of data comparing liana-free plots with naturally liana-filled plots in the same forest, they quantified the extent to which lianas limited tree growth, hence carbon uptake. In gaps created by fallen trees, lianas were shown to reduce tree biomass accumulation by nearly 300 percent. Findings by Schnitzer and colleagues, also published this year in Ecology, showed that liana distribution and diversity are largely determined by forest gaps, which is not the case for tropical trees.

Arid conditions in gaps are similar to recently reforested areas. "The ability of lianas to rapidly invade open areas and young forests may dramatically reduce tropical tree regeneration—and nearly all of the aboveground carbon is stored in trees," said Schnitzer. Lianas have been shown to consistently hinder the recruitment of small trees, and limit the growth, fecundity and survival of established trees.

"Scientists have assumed that the battle for carbon is a zero-sum game, in which the loss of carbon from one plant is balanced by the gain of carbon by another. This assumption, however, is now being challenged because lianas prevent trees from accumulating vast amounts of carbon, but lianas cannot compensate in terms of carbon accumulation," said Schnitzer. "If lianas continue to increase in tropical forests, they will reduce the capacity for tropical forests to uptake carbon, which will accelerate the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon worldwide."


Current Literature


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Calder, D.R., Choong, H.H.C., Carlton, J.T., Chapman, J.W., Miller, J.A., and Geller, J. 2014. Hydroids (Cnidaria: Hydrozoa) from Japanese tsunami marine debris washing ashore in the northwestern United States. Aquat. Invasions 9(4):425-440.

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Compagnoni, A., and Adler, P.B. 2014. Warming, competition, and Bromus tectorum population growth across an elevation gradient. Ecosphere 5(9):121.

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Copeland, H.E., Sawyer, H., Monteith, K.L., Naugle, D.E., Pocewicz, A., Graf, N., and Kauffman, M.J. 2014. Conserving migratory mule deer through the umbrella of sage-grouse. Ecosphere 5(9):117.

Coudrat, C.N.Z., Nanthavong, C., and Nekaris, K.A.I. 2014. Conservation of the red-shanked douc Pygathrix nemaeus in Lao People's Democratic Republic: density estimates based on distance sampling and habitat suitability modelling. Oryx 48(4):540-547.

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Dinsmore, S.J., Lauten, D.J., Castelein, K.A., Gaines, E.P., and Stern, M.A. 2014. Predator exclosures, predator removal, and habitat improvement increase nest success of Snowy Plovers in Oregon, USA. Condor 116(4):619-628.

Dou, P., and Cui, B.S. 2014. Dynamics and integrity of wetland network in estuary. Ecol. Inform. 24:1-10.

Douglas, L.R., and Alie, K. 2014. Gaps in our understanding of the economics of high-value wildlife (response to Vincent Nijman). Biol. Conserv. 179:150-151.

Driscoll, D.A., Catford, J.A., Barney, J.N., Hulme, P.E., Inderjit, Martin, T.G., Pauchard, A., Pyšek, P., Richardson, D.M., Riley, S., and Visser, V. 2014. New pasture plants intensify invasive species risk. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 111(46):16622-16627.

du Preez, B., Loveridge, A.J., and Macdonald, D.W. 2014. Making the best of camera-trap surveys in an imperfect world: a reply to Balme et al. Biol. Conserv. 179:146-147.

Dudley, B.D., MacKenzie, R.A., Sakihara, T.S., Dulaiova, H., Waters, C.A., Hughes, R.F., and Ostertag, R. 2014. Influences of N-fixing and non-N-fixing vegetation and invasive fish on water chemistry of Hawaiian anchialine ponds. Pacific Sci. 68(4):509-523.

Dudley, N., Groves, C., Redford, K.H., and Stolton, S. 2014. Where now for protected areas? Setting the stage for the 2014 World Parks Congress. Oryx 48(4):496-503.

Duncan, R.P., Blackburn, T.M., Rossinelli, S., and Bacher, S. 2014. Quantifying invasion risk: the relationship between establishment probability and founding population size. Method. Ecol. Evol. 5(11):1255-1263.

Dzialuk, A., Chybicki, I., Gout, R., Mączka, T., Fleischer, P., Konrad, H., Curtu, A.L., Sofletea, N., and Valadon, A. 2014. No reduction in genetic diversity of Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra L.) in Tatra Mountains despite high fragmentation and small population size. Conserv. Genet. 15(6):1433-1445.

Eash-Loucks, W.E., Kimball, M.E., and Petrinec, K.M. 2014. Long-term changes in an estuarine mud crab community: evaluating the impact of non-native species. J. Crustacean Biol. 34(6):731-738.

Edwards, D.L., Garrick, R.C., Tapia, W., and Caccone, A. 2014. Cryptic structure and niche divergence within threatened Galápagos giant tortoises from southern Isabela Island. Conserv. Genet. 15(6):1357-1369.

Edwards, R.J., Clark, L.C., and Beck, K.G. 2014. Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) dispersal by European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Invas. Plant Sci. Manage. 7(3):425-431.

Eisenhauer, N., Stefanski, A., Fisichelli, N.A., Rice, K., Rich, R., and Reich, P.B. 2014. Warming shifts 'worming': effects of experimental warming on invasive earthworms in northern North America. Sci. Rep. 4:6890.

Eizaguirre, C., and Baltazar-Soares, M. 2014. Evolutionary conservation-evaluating the adaptive potential of species. Evol. Appl. 7(9):963-967.

Engelhardt, K.A.M., Lloyd, M.W., and Neel, M.C. 2014. Effects of genetic diversity on conservation and restoration potential. at individual, population, and regional scales. Biol. Conserv. 179:6-16.

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