Professor Robyn Burnham, along with coauthors/coeditors, has published a new book titled “Ecology of Lianas.”

The book description from the publisher’s website reads “Lianas are woody vines that were the focus of intense study by early ecologists, such as Darwin, who devoted an entire book to the natural history of climbing plants. Over the past quarter century, there has been a resurgence in the study of lianas, and liana are again recognized as important components of many forests, particularly in the tropics.  The increasing amount of research on lianas has resulted in a fundamentally deeper understanding of liana ecology, evolution, and life-history, as well as the myriad roles lianas play in forest dynamics and functioning. This book provides insight into the ecology and evolution of lianas, their anatomy, physiology, and natural history, their global abundance and distribution, and their wide-ranging effects on the myriad organisms that inhabit tropical and temperate forests.”

At the University of Michigan, Burnham is an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, an associate curator of paleontology and associate curator at the Herbarium. Coauthors are Stefan Schnitzer, Frans Bongers, and Francis E. Putz. The 504-page book was published in December 2014 by John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Nearly 20 years ago, Burnham began her liana research in a place that she believes to be one of the most biodiverse locales on the planet, Yasuní, Ecuador. While she thinks that “jumping in at the deep end of the pool” was probably not the most sensible career move, she felt that once she had learned about the lianas there, it allowed her to go almost anywhere in the Neotropics and "not feel too terribly lost.”

“My inspirations have come from Alwyn Gentry, a maniacal botanist from the Missouri Botanical Garden, and from Robin Foster (The Field Museum in Chicago), one of my best friends and the best botanist in the world, in my opinion. In addition, I feel privileged to have worked with a number of botanists who are younger and much more rigorous/vigorous than I ever was: Nigel Pitman, Percy Nuñez, Joao Batista da Silva, and others.” Burnham has studied lianas in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil but said she is almost as interested in the lianas of the temperate zone that receive even less scientific interest than those in the tropics.

In addition to her U-M affiliations, Burnham is a research associate at Smithsonian Institution, Field Museum, and Missouri Botanical Garden.

A companion site was created where figures and PDFs of tables can be downloaded for teaching. “I am delighted that the book figures are available for others to use in lectures and in research, because if there is anything the field needs, it is more people who are willing to do the hard work to do research on lianas,” said Burnham. “There are places called ‘liana forest’ in Bolivia and Brazil that are so dense in lianas that it is like walking through spaghetti. Few people have approached these areas scientifically because they are not all that easy to work in. But as an unexplored frontier, they really are a great opportunity.”

“I have wanted to be involved in a book on lianas for several years,” she said. “The time was right and the group of us who compiled the chapters were fortunate to have Stefan Schnitzer as a leader because he is highly organized and efficient, so we all kept to our tasks and the collaboration ended up in a piece we are all very proud of.”

And if this isn’t enough to get you to appreciate lianas as much as Burnham does, she shared what she loves about the woody vines: Liana stems contain more cells that have the ability to become a new plant than most woody plants do. “These cells act like stem cells in animals. So, from a single cell, roots, flowers or new stems can form. This means that when lianas crash to the ground because their host tree died, they just sprout new roots where the stem hit the ground, and new buds, and off they go – back up to the canopy in another host tree. When you walk in a forest, look at how the stems of lianas can tell the history of the forest by the number of times they go up and come down again from various trees. Each one represents a tree or branch death, recorded by the liana, which just kept on living.”

Sort of makes you want to go out and hug a liana, doesn’t it? And if not, then perhaps just explore the book.

Read more and purchase the book

Companion site with downloadable figures and tables for teaching