Ecological orthodoxy suggests that old-growth forests should be close to dynamic equilibrium, but this view has been challenged by recent findings that neotropical forests are accumulating carbon1,2 and biomass3,4, possibly in response to the increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide5,6. However, it is unclear whether the recent increase in tree biomass has been accompanied by a shift in community composition. Such changes could reduce or enhance the carbon storage potential of old-growth forests in the long term. Here we show that non-fragmented Amazon forests are experiencing a concerted increase in the density, basal area and mean size of woody climbing plants (lianas). Over the last two decades of the twentieth century the dominance of large lianas relative to trees has increased by 1.7–4.6% a year. Lianas enhance tree mortality and suppress tree growth7, so their rapid increase implies that the tropical terrestrial carbon sink may shut down sooner than current models suggest8,9,10. Predictions of future tropical carbon fluxes will need to account for the changing composition and dynamics of supposedly undisturbed forests.
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We acknowledge the contributions of more than 50 field assistants in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, the residents of Constancia, Infierno, La Torre, Mishana and Florida, as well as logistical support from Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales (INRENA), Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER), Cuzco Amazónico Lodge, Explorama Tours SA, Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP), Parque Nacional Noel Kempff, Peruvian Safaris SA, Universidad Nacional de la Amazonía Peruana, and Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco. Field research was supported by the EU Fifth Framework Programme (RAINFOR), the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the National Geographic Society, the American Philosophical Society, the National Science Foundation, the WWF-U.S./ Garden Club of America, Conservation International, the MacArthur and Mellon Foundations, US-AID, the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry and the Royal Society (Y.M.). The manuscript benefited from comments by C. Körner and N. Pitman. We are indebted to the late A.H. Gentry for helping to make this work possible.
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
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Phillips, O., Vásquez Martínez, R., Arroyo, L. et al. Increasing dominance of large lianas in Amazonian forests. Nature 418, 770–774 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature00926
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