Contrasting cost-benefit strategy between lianas and trees in a tropical seasonal rain forest in southwestern China

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Lianas are an important component of tropical forests and often abundant in open habitats, such as tree-fall gaps, forest edges, and disturbed forests. The abundance of lianas in tropical forests has been increasing as a result of global environmental change and increasing forest fragmentation. In order to understand this phenomenon in terms of leaf functional traits and to evaluate their competitive potential, we conducted a cost–benefit analysis of leaves from 18 liana species and 19 tree species in a tropical seasonal rain forest. The results revealed that lianas were scattered in a group distinct from trees along the first axis of a principal component analysis using 15 leaf ecophysiological traits, being located at the quick-return end of the leaf economics spectrum, with higher specific leaf area and photosynthetic rates (A), higher photosynthetic nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) use efficiencies, a lower leaf construction cost per unit leaf area (CC) and cost–benefit ratio (CC/A), and a shorter leaf life span (LLS). Trees showed the opposite trends. The results indicate that lianas can grow faster and capture resources more efficiently than trees in disturbed, open habitats. The positive relationship between LLS and CC/A revealed a trade-off between leaf construction cost and benefit over time. The 37 species analyzed had a mean foliar N/P ratio of 20, indicating that the forest was characterized by a P deficit. With an increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, the higher nutrient use efficiency could benefit lianas more than trees in terms of productivity, possibly also contributing to the increasing abundance of lianas in nutrient-limited tropical forests.