MONSTER VINES LSA research grant
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Professor Robyn Burnham has been awarded a grant of over $78,000 from the LSA Associate Professor Support Fund for her research that asks which liana species overwhelm trees in “liana forests” of southern Amazonia?
Her primary aim is to determine whether southern Amazon basin forests are as diverse (species rich) in climbing plants as those in the heart of the Amazon, near Manaus, where she is currently working.
Secondarily, given the curious vegetation type in these southern forests, called “liana forest” or “mata de cipó”, she will determine whether climbing plants that dominate there have a higher potential for creating thickets via vegetative reproduction (self-cloning), and can thus overwhelm the forests if left to grow after deforestation or selective logging.
“Lianas are a ubiquitous life form found in almost all forests, but are especially diverse in tropical regions,” said Burnham. “A forest in Michigan, which might have three or four species of vines, could have as many as 70 or 80 species in the lowland tropics of South America. They contribute not only diversity but a variety of fruit and floral resources to the cornucopia found in tropical environments. Interestingly, some liana species are capable of vigorous re-rooting once they are cut or broken, and have the potential to be problematic in areas where management does not take into account their different potential for vegetative reproduction.
“To determine the origin and ecological future of the forests and their lianas, we need to understand the composition, structure, diversity from site to site, and the basic regeneration of species. My general research goals are to improve knowledge of climbing plant species, with special focus on the traits that set them apart from each other and from trees.”
Burnham and her collaborators, including her graduate and undergraduate students, will construct geographic maps of the distribution of dominant lianas in southern Amazonia, with emphasis on the characteristics that lead to their reign in certain vegetation types. EEB graduate student David Marvin will use Landsat Mapping of lianas as a component of his dissertation. In Amazonia, scientists from local institutions, largely in Brazil, will also be involved in the research.
The work is based on existing collections from herbaria, on focused field surveys in selected high priority areas, on dominance mapping using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and on greenhouse experiments that will target vegetative regeneration (cloning).
The research could help to slow the degradation of Amazonian ecosystems, thereby aiding with issues such as carbon storage, habitat preservation, indigenous rights, erosion, colonization, and/or agriculture. Burnham’s latest research will tackle a problem of immense conservation importance, and brings the traits and strategies of lianas to bear on the origin of liana forest in the southern Amazon. Are lianas reacting only to historical land-use? Is the distribution due to climatic conditions, which could expand beyond the southern Amazon in the future? Recent reports of lianas increasing in abundance in other neotropical sites has made an initial survey in liana forests much more critical and timely.
The data gathered will be the first of its kind for liana forest, in which all stems are identified and measured, and placed in a geographic model for prediction of dominants in nearby unsampled forests. These data will provide a springboard for important research into the unique nature of the vegetation type, as well as into the species unique to the area. The award is supported by the Margaret and Herman Sokol Faculty Awards.
Pictured: Robyn Burnham (front row, orange cap) and her field crew: left to right back row: Junior, Luciane Ferreira, Marcia Cleia Vilela Dos Santos, Romario da Silva, Antonio Martin; left to right, front row: Joao Batista
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