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Why do lianas survive drought better than trees?

January 20, 2014

Why do lianas survive drought better than trees?

About eight percent of the carbon in a tropical tree is not locked away in its roots, trunks, branches or leaves

About eight percent of the carbon in a tropical tree is not locked away in its roots, trunks, branches or leaves. Carboncontaining fluids move around within the tree and is often considered a tree’s buffer against drought, essentially allowing it to tap spare carbon reserves to survive when the going gets dry.

Even considerable carbon stores do not prevent trees from being outperformed in droughts by lianas —woody vines that limit tree growth— that are increasing in abundance in tropical America. Anna Sala, a visiting scientist from the University of Montana at Missoula, thinks this could be explained if lianas have greater stores of these non-structural carbon reserves.

Sala proposed this theory to Stefan Schnitzer, STRI’s resident liana expert, when he spoke last fall in Missoula. Lianas are thought to best trees during droughts due to various factors including deeper root systems. “But this doesn’t explain it all,” said Sala, while visiting Barro Colorado Island this week. “There has to be something else.”

During her visit, Sala and Schnitzer plan to lay the experimental groundwork to see if that something else is non-structural carbon, and how it may factor into future climate predictions. “Modelers are starting to pay attention to this pool,” said Sala, a plant physiologist and ecologist.

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