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In tropical forests, lightning strikes the most resilient trees

Lightning may influence the composition of tropical forests, according to a study led by Steve Yanoviak of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The results of the study suggest that the tropical trees which are most likely to be struck are also the most resilient to lightning strikes. 

Over the course of several years, a team of lightning scientists and tropical field biologists analyzed the effects of lightning strikes on the Panama Canal forests of the Barro Colorado Nature Monument.

The researchers estimate that lightning strikes tropical trees millions of times a year. Considering that lightning is expected to become more frequent in the coming years, the experts set out to investigate how susceptibility to lightning may vary across tree species.

The study revealed that some types of trees were more resilient to lightning strikes than others. For example, palm trees were the most likely to die from lightning damage. Interestingly, the trees that were struck the most often were also the most likely to recover. 

“The tree species that were most frequently damaged by lightning tended to be the same species that were most capable of surviving lightning strikes,” said study co-author Evan Gora. “This suggests that lightning is an important selective force with implications for the ecology and evolution of tropical forests.”

According to the researchers, the most lightning-resistant tree species had a few things in common including denser wood, larger vessels for transporting water, and leaves that were richer in nitrogen.

“Trees with denser wood tend to live longer and store more carbon, so finding this trait correlated with lightning tolerance implies an interesting compensatory mechanism where greater lightning frequency could actually favor species that are better at storing carbon,” explained study co-author Jeannine Richards.

The fact that tree species with a greater capacity for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere also seem to more capable of surviving lightning damage comes as a welcome discovery as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. 

“The results of this study are especially interesting because they suggest that changes in lightning strike frequency can influence the composition of tropical forests over the long term,” said Yanoviak.

The study is published in the journal Nature Plants.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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