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Study: Vines strangle tropical trees' carbon storage abilities

Researchers suggest a warmer, drier climate could further encourage the growth of woody vines, creating a negative feedback loop of accelerated climate change.

By
Brooks Hays
Researcher Stefan Schnitzer stands next to lianas, or woody vines, on Panama's Barro Colorado Island. Photo by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Researcher Stefan Schnitzer stands next to lianas, or woody vines, on Panama's Barro Colorado Island. Photo by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

PANAMA CITY, Panama, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Next to the oceans, the world's forests are Earth's most effective carbon storage system. And no forest stores more carbon than tropical forests.

But new research suggests wood vines, or lianas, are severely limiting the carbon storage potential of tropical forests.

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The increasing presence of lianas is strangling tropical trees, limiting the growth of tropical forests and causing the premature death of large trees. According to a new study published this week in the journal PNAS, vines have diminished the carbon storage abilities of some forests by as much 75 percent.

When researchers at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute monitored the growth of forest plots with and without lianas in 16 forest plots in Panama's Barro Colorado Nature Monument, they found the presence of the woody vine drastically reduced overall biomass accumulation.

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"This study has far-reaching ramifications," study co-author Stefan Schnitzer, a biology professor at Marquette University and research associate at the STRI, said in a press release. "Lianas contribute only a small fraction of the biomass in tropical forests, but their effects on trees dramatically alter how carbon is accumulated and stored."

Not only did lianas diminish tree growth, they also contribute to a forest floor littered with more leaves and less wood. Leaves rot more quickly, releasing their carbon contents into the atmosphere.

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Researchers suggest a warmer, drier climate could further encourage the growth of woody vines, creating a negative feedback loop and further diminishing the role of tropical forests in sequestering excess carbon and slowing global warming.

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"In terms of carbon, lianas may be detrimental; however, lianas provide a wide range of resources for wildlife, such as fruits, seeds and fresh leaves, and by connecting trees together lianas provide aerial pathways that are used by the vast majority of arboreal animals to move through the forest," Schnitzer added.

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