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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


Forests Getting Tangled Up in Vines

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: vines, lianas, forests, biology, ecology, botany, wilderness, climate change, environment, Conservation, Keith Goetzman,

Forest with lianas

Beware the vine creep. That’s the name given to the widespread profusion of lianas—woody, tree-climbing vines—across the tropical forests of North, South, and Central America.

The phenomenon has previously been documented in the Amazon, but now ecologists have confirmed that vines are on the march in Panama, Brazil, and French Guiana, reports Conservation magazine.

“We are witnessing a fundamental structural change in the physical makeup of forests that will have a profound impact on the animals, human communities, and businesses that depend on them for their livelihoods,” Stefan Schnitzer of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Wisconsin tells Conservation.

The lianas, Schnitzer explains, don’t just climb their host tree: They compete with it, stealing its sunlight from above and its groundwater and nutrients from below. But researchers don’t know exactly why they’re thriving. Writes Smithsonian Science:

There is still no consensus as to why lianas are gaining the upper hand. They may survive seasonal droughts that are becoming more common as climate becomes more variable. They may recover more quickly from natural disturbances such as hurricanes and El Niño events and from human disturbances like logging, clearing land for agriculture and road building. Lianas respond quickly to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide—growing faster than associated tree species in several experiments.

Source: Conservation, Smithsonian Science 

Image by LollyKnit, licensed under Creative Commons.