Climbing plants disturb carbon storage in tropical forests

13 Oct 2015 10:37:51.577

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Scientists have discovered that climbing vines are upsetting the carbon balance of tropical forests by crowding out and killing trees.

Rainforests play a vital role in the global carbon cycle. We depend on the trees found in these tropical areas to take up some of the carbon dioxide that we are emitting, so not all of our emissions end up in the atmosphere.

In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and led by Dr Geertje van der Heijden from The University of Nottingham, researchers have found evidence that woody climbing plants — called lianas — are dramatically reducing the carbon uptake and storage of tropical forests by crowding out and killing trees.

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Carbon cycle

Tropical forests store nearly 30 per cent of global carbon and contribute to 40 per cent of the global carbon sink. Lianas have drastically increased in both numbers and bulk in recent decades, and are restricting tree growth and even killing trees by their tangling presence.

During a three-year experiment, scientists were able to prove that lianas substantially reduce forest-level carbon uptake and storage.

Working in the Barro Colorado Nature Monument in Panama, Dr van der Heijden and her team, consisting of Dr Stefan Schnitzer (Marquette University, US) and Dr Jennifer S Powers (University of Minnesota, US), removed lianas from eight of 16 large (80-meter-square) plots of tropical forest, then tracked how much above-ground biomass — wood and leaves — accumulated in each plot over a period of three years.

Reducing tree growth and increasing tree mortality

The researchers found that the study plots with lianas collected 76 per cent less carbon in woody biomass over the experimental period because of reduced tree growth and increased tree death.

The team calculated that lianas could potentially reduce long-term storage of carbon in tropical forests by one-third or more.

Dr van de Heijden, from the School of Geography at The University of Nottingham, said: “Essentially lianas are reducing the amount of carbon being taken in by the forest and increasing the amount that’s going out.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that these liana effects have been experimentally tested on a whole forest level. It proves the important role of lianas in tropical forests, particularly in relation to carbon.

“Lianas are increasing in numbers and size (at least) in the tropical forests in Central and South American and so our findings have a great relevance when looking at the future fate of the tropical carbon balance, as well as for global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“Now we have evidence to prove the important role of lianas in the carbon balance of these forests, I would hope that this will be taken into account in climate and vegetation models to improve future predictions.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Research Project of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for three years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Geertje van der Heijden from the School of Geography at The University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 951 5635 or

Charlotte Anscombe – Media Relations Manager (Arts and Social Sciences)

Email:  Phone:+44 (0)115 74 84 417 Location: University Park

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