Liana species decline in Congo basin contrasts with global patterns

Frans Bongers*, Corneille E.N. Ewango, Masha T. van der Sande, Lourens Poorter

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Lianas, woody climbing plants, are increasing in many tropical forests, with cascading effects such as decreased forest productivity, carbon sequestration, and resilience. Possible causes are increasing forest fragmentation, CO2 fertilization, and drought. Determining the primary changing species and their underlying vital rates help explain the liana trends. We monitored over 17,000 liana stems for 13 yr in 20 ha of old-growth forest in the Congo Basin, and here we report changes and vital rates for the community and for the 87 most abundant species. The total liana abundance declined from 15,007 lianas in 1994 to 11,090 in 2001 to 9,978 in 2007. Over half (52%) of the evaluated species have significantly declining populations, showing that the community response is not the result of changes in a few dominant species only. Species density change (i.e., the change in number of individuals per hectare) decreased with mortality rate, tended to increase with recruitment rate, but was independent of growth rate. Species change was independent of functional characteristics important for plant responses to fragmentation, CO2, and drought, such as lifetime light requirements, climbing and dispersal mechanism, and leaf size. These results indicate that in Congo lianas do not show the reputed global liana increase, but rather a decline, and that elements of the reputed drivers underlying global liana change do not apply to this DR Congo forest. We suggest warfare in the Congo Basin to have decimated the elephant population, leading to less disturbance, forest closure, and declining liana numbers. Our results imply that, in this tropical forest, local causes (i.e., disturbance) override more global causes of liana change resulting in liana decline, which sharply contrasts with the liana increase observed elsewhere.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere03004
Issue number5
Early online date25 Feb 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2020


  • climbers
  • collapse
  • DR Congo
  • functional traits
  • Ituri
  • lianas
  • species abundance
  • tropical forest


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