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Keywords:

  • Barro Colorado Island;
  • canopy disturbance;
  • determinants of plant community diversity and structure;
  • habitat association;
  • liana community;
  • light detection and ranging;
  • soil resources;
  • topography;
  • treefall gap

Summary

1. Lianas are a conspicuous element of many tropical forests, accounting for up to 40% of woody stem density and 20% of species richness in seasonal forests. However, lianas have seldom been surveyed at sufficiently large spatial scales to allow an assessment of the importance of habitat variables in structuring liana communities.

2. We compare the association patterns of 82 liana species and an equivalent sample of tree species on the 50 ha Forest Dynamics Project plot on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, with topographic habitat variables (high and low plateau, slope, swamp and streamside), and thirteen mapped soil chemical variables. In addition, we test for liana species associations with canopy disturbance using a canopy height map of the plot generated using light detection and ranging.

3. For all liana species combined, densities differed among topographic habitat types in the plot, with significantly higher densities on the seasonally drier lower plateau habitat (1044 individuals ha−1) than the moister slope habitat (729 individuals ha−1). Lianas were also significantly more abundant than expected in areas with low canopy height.

4. The proportion of liana species associated with one or more topographic habitat variables (44%) was significantly lower than that for trees (66%). Similarly, liana species were significantly less frequently associated with PC axes derived from soil chemical variables (21%) than trees (52%). The majority of liana species (63%) were significantly associated with areas of the plot with low canopy height reflecting an affinity for treefall gaps.

5.Synthesis. The habitat associations detected here suggest that liana density is associated primarily with canopy disturbance, and to a lesser extent with topography and soil chemistry. Relative to trees, few liana species were associated with local variation in topography and soil chemistry, suggesting that nutrient availability exerts only weak effects on liana community composition compared to trees. Results from this study support the contention that increases in forest disturbance rates are a driver of recently observed increases in liana abundance and biomass in neotropical forests.