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Ecological Society of America

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Early successional tropical forests could mitigate climate change via rapid accumulation of atmospheric carbon. However, liana (woody vine) abundance and biomass has been increasing in many tropical forests over the past decades, which may slow the speed at which secondary forests accumulate biomass. Lianas decrease biomass accumulation in tropical forests, and may have a particularly strong effect on young forests by stalling tree growth. As forests mature, trees may outgrow or shed lianas, thus escaping some of the negative effects of lianas. Alternatively, lianas may have the strongest effect in older successional forests if the effect of lianas is commensurate with their density, which increases dramatically in the first decades of forest succession. We tested these two hypotheses using a landscape liana-removal experiment in 30 forest stands that ranged from 10 to 35 yr old in Central Panama. We measured tree growth and biomass accumulation in the stands every year from 2014 to 2017. We found that the effect of liana removal on large trees (≥20-cm diameter) decreased with forest age, supporting the hypothesis that lianas have the strongest negative effects on trees, and thus biomass uptake and carbon storage, in very young successional forests. Large trees accumulated more biomass in the absence of lianas in younger forests than in older forests (compared to controls) even after accounting for the effect of canopy completeness and crown illumination, implying that the detrimental effects of lianas go well beyond resource availability and crown health. There was no significant effect of lianas on small trees (1–20-cm diameter), likely because lianas seek light and thus do not deploy their leaves on small trees that are trapped in the forest understory. Our results show that high liana density early in forest succession reduces forest biomass accumulation by negatively impacting large trees, thus decreasing the capacity of young secondary forests to mitigate climate change. Although the negative effects of lianas on forest biomass diminish as forests age, they do not disappear, and thus lianas are an important component of tropical forest carbon budgets throughout succession.


Published version. Ecology, Vol. 101, No. 5 (2020, May): e02989. DOI. © 2020 Ecological Society of America. Used with permission.

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