An article titled “Forests in transformation” in the magazine of the São Paulo Research Foundation, Pesquisa, profiles Professor Robyn Burnham’s lianas research on the proliferation of lianas in the Amazon region.

Based on 35 years of field observations, Burnham and other researchers are witnessing the expansion of liana populations in interior Amazonian forests and bamboo in the Atlantic Forest for the first time. Usually, lianas and bamboo proliferate in areas of damaged vegetation, which makes the researchers wonder if the forests are in the midst of unknown environmental pressures. One of the theories being tested is that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide may be a culprit.

Burnham, who visits the Amazon at least two times annually, and her colleagues, are mapping the distribution of lianas in parts of the Amazon. She has identified 300 species, many of them not yet described. She is working on the Biological Dynamics of the Forest Fragments Project at Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon.

“While lianas can be a problem in some areas, they add biodiversity to forests and resources to both animals and humans,” explained Burnham. Because lianas do not create thick trunks, there is less carbon stocked and stored in forests by lianas as compared to trees of the same age or height.  So, as lianas overtop and smother forests, less carbon is stored in the standing vegetation.  Conversion of tall tropical forest to liana-dense vegetation must be balanced by carbon storage elsewhere if we are to maintain carbon storage at current levels. 

“Particularly in the southern Amazon, land that has been cleared for agriculture opens the door for liana colonization," she said. "My work aims to identify which liana species cause the greatest problem in regeneration of Neotropical forests, so that we can encourage species that compete less aggressively with trees.”

“Burnham’s work is also broadening other researchers’ understanding of the composition of liana communities and helping them gain a more in-depth look at the proliferation of these plants,” states the Pesquisa article. Pesquisa translates to Inquiry in English.  

Read the full Pesquisa article (October 2014).