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The vines are drying – York scientist delivers fire warning

Posted on 7 May 2020

A University of York scientist working to preserve forests has warned that vines that once protected vegetation from fire may now be drying into fuel.

Dr Andy Marshall Pic credit: Ruben Mwakisoma

Dr Andy Marshall, lead investigator in a collaborative, five-year Forest Restoration and Climate Experiment (FoRCE) study, says woody vines – called lianas – could become a fire hazard when dried by hot weather.

 The study has implications for Australia’s forests and ecology following the recent devastating bush fires.

Fuel for fires

 “Lianas growing extensively over the top of trees actually protect forests from fire, but if they’re not properly managed, dried lianas can act as fuel for fires,” said Dr Marshall, who holds joint positions at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) in Australia and the University of York.

 “Increasing fire resulting from climate change is likely to worsen this effect because some forests will likely become too dry for lianas, leaving dried out vegetation behind for fires to spread – even up into the forest canopy.

 “This is unusual for rainforest areas, but in preparation for our long-term experiments, we are hearing accounts of recent incidences of this in north Queensland, which is of great concern for forest managers.

 “Forests are also vital for our planet – so when vines are stopping them from growing or contributing to fuel loads, we need to take notice.”

Tree felling

They are focussing on assessing whether lianas help or hinder the recovery of forests after damage caused by tree felling or cyclones.

Dr Marshall is well-known internationally for keeping a careful eye on threatened forests, with his research leading to the discovery of two new tree species and a chameleon species.

His most recent tree species discovery took place while on a survey expedition in the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania.

“The purpose of being in that location was to survey the environmental factors that influence the amount of carbon that forests can store,” Dr Marshall said.

“We noticed this tree, which was huge, 20 metres tall, and similar to other trees in the area but the point of difference was the flowers on the particular tree.”

“We managed to get a branch down and have the flowers assessed and found it was new to science.

“We are working in incredibly remote places to establish research sites, so in a way, these types of finds are almost to be expected, but we definitely don’t go out searching for them.

“If forests don’t have rare and threatened species, then they have less diversity which means they’re less healthy, and that will have lasting impacts on the Earth. Our FoRCE research is working to get one step ahead of that.”

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About this research

The University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), the University of York and Newcastle University are collaborating with Missouri Botanical Garden, University of Leeds, University of Copenhagen and numerous other academic institutions to assess two major rainforest sites in Australia and Tanzania, and other vegetation data from across the world. The research is aiming to test a new hypothesis on how lianas affect forests worldwide. The study has been published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. Explore our research