Effects of dry-season irrigation on leaf physiology and biomass allocation in tropical lianas and trees

Chris M. Smith-Martin, Carolina L. Bastos, Omar R. Lopez, Jennifer S. Powers, Stefan A. Schnitzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Lianas are more abundant in seasonal forests than in wetter forests and are thought to perform better than trees when light is abundant and water is limited. We tested the hypothesis that lianas perform better than trees during seasonal drought using a common garden experiment with 12 taxonomically diverse species (six liana and six tree species) in 12 replicated plots. We irrigated six of the plots during the dry season for four years, while the remaining six control plots received only ambient rainfall. In year 5, we measured stem diameters for all individuals and harvested above- and belowground biomass for a subset of individuals to quantify absolute growth and biomass allocation to roots, stems, and leaves, as well as total root length and maximum rooting depth. We also measured rate of photosynthesis, intrinsic water use efficiency (iWUE), pre-dawn and midday water potential, and a set of functional and hydraulic traits. During the peak of the dry season, lianas in control plots had 54% higher predawn leaf water potentials (ΨPD), and 45% higher photosynthetic rates than trees in control plots. By contrast, during the peak of the wet season, these physiological differences between lianas and trees become less pronounced and, in some cases, even disappeared. Trees had higher specific leaf area (SLA) than lianas; however, no other functional trait differed between growth forms. Trees responded to the irrigation treatment with 15% larger diameters and 119% greater biomass than trees in control plots. Liana growth, however, did not respond to irrigation; liana diameter and biomass were similar in control and irrigation plots, suggesting that lianas were far less limited by soil moisture than were trees. Contrary to previous hypotheses, lianas did not have deeper roots than trees; however, lianas had longer roots per stem diameter than did trees. Our results support the hypothesis that lianas perform better and experience less physiological stress than trees during seasonal drought, suggesting clear differences between growth forms in response to altered rainfall regimes. Ultimately, better dry-season performance may explain why liana abundance peaks in seasonal forests compared to trees, which peak in abundance in less seasonal, wetter forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02827
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 by the Ecological Society of America


  • climate change
  • drought
  • liana increases
  • rooting depth
  • seasonality
  • trees
  • tropical forests
  • whole-plant harvest


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