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The persistence of carbon in the African forest understory.

Hubau, Wannes and De Mil, Tom and Van den Bulcke, Jan and Phillips, Oliver L and Angoboy Ilondea, Bhély and Van Acker, Joris and Sullivan, Martin JP and Nsenga, Laurent and Toirambe, Benjamin and Couralet, Camille and Banin, Lindsay F and Begne, Serge K and Baker, Timothy R and Bourland, Nils and Chezeaux, Eric and Clark, Connie J and Collins, Murray and Comiskey, James A and Cuni-Sanchez, Aida and Deklerck, Victor and Dierickx, Sofie and Doucet, Jean-Louis and Ewango, Corneille EN and Feldpausch, Ted R and Gilpin, Martin and Gonmadje, Christelle and Hall, Jefferson S and Harris, David J and Hardy, Olivier J and Kamdem, Marie-Noel D and Kasongo Yakusu, Emmanuel and Lopez-Gonzalez, Gabriela and Makana, Jean-Remy and Malhi, Yadvinder and Mbayu, Faustin M and Moore, Sam and Mukinzi, Jacques and Pickavance, Georgia and Poulsen, John R and Reitsma, Jan and Rousseau, Mélissa and Sonké, Bonaventure and Sunderland, Terry and Taedoumg, Hermann and Talbot, Joey and Tshibamba Mukendi, John and Umunay, Peter M and Vleminckx, Jason and White, Lee JT and Zemagho, Lise and Lewis, Simon L and Beeckman, Hans (2019) The persistence of carbon in the African forest understory. Nat Plants, 5 (2). pp. 133-140.


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Quantifying carbon dynamics in forests is critical for understanding their role in long-term climate regulation1-4. Yet little is known about tree longevity in tropical forests3,5-8, a factor that is vital for estimating carbon persistence3,4. Here we calculate mean carbon age (the period that carbon is fixed in trees7) in different strata of African tropical forests using (1) growth-ring records with a unique timestamp accurately demarcating 66 years of growth in one site and (2) measurements of diameter increments from the African Tropical Rainforest Observation Network (23 sites). We find that in spite of their much smaller size, in understory trees mean carbon age (74 years) is greater than in sub-canopy (54 years) and canopy (57 years) trees and similar to carbon age in emergent trees (66 years). The remarkable carbon longevity in the understory results from slow and aperiodic growth as an adaptation to limited resource availability9-11. Our analysis also reveals that while the understory represents a small share (11%) of the carbon stock12,13, it contributes disproportionally to the forest carbon sink (20%). We conclude that accounting for the diversity of carbon age and carbon sequestration among different forest strata is critical for effective conservation management14-16 and for accurate modelling of carbon cycling4.

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