Sciences in Cold and Arid Regions ›› 2018, Vol. 10 ›› Issue (6): 458-467.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1226.2018.00458

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Stable isotopes reveal varying water sources of Caragana microphylla in a desert-oasis ecotone near the Badain Jaran Desert

Hai Zhou1,WenZhi Zhao1,*(),ZhiBin He1,Heng Ren1,2   

  1. 1 Linze Inland River Basin Research Station, Key Laboratory of Ecohydrology of Inland River Basin, Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou, Gansu 730000, China
    2 Lanzhou Information Center, Chinese Academy of sciences, Lanzhou, Gansu 730000, China
  • Received:2018-06-06 Accepted:2018-07-13 Online:2018-12-01 Published:2018-12-29
  • Contact: WenZhi Zhao
  • Supported by:
    This study was supported by the National Science Foundation for Distinguished Young Scholars of China (Grant No. 41701035), the Key Program of National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 41630861), and the National Science Foundation for Post-doctoral Scientists of China (Grant No. 2016M602902). The authors are very grateful to the anonymous reviewers and editors for their critical reviews and comments that helped to improve and clarify the manuscript.


Understanding the variation in a plant's water sources is critical to understanding hydrological processes in water-limited environments. Here, we measured the stable-isotope ratios (δ18O) of xylem water of Caragana microphylla, precipitation, soil water from different depths, and groundwater to quantitatively analyze the proportion of water sources for the shrub. We found that the water sources of C. microphylla differed with the plant's ages and the seasons. The main water source for young shrubs was upper-soil water, and it showed significant changes with seasonal precipitation inputs. In summer, the proportion contributed by shallow water was significantly increased with increased precipitation inputs. Then, the contribution from shallow-soil water decreased with the decline in precipitation input in spring and autumn. However, the adult shrubs resorted to deep-soil layers and groundwater as the main water sources during the whole growing season and showed much less seasonal variation. We conclude that the main water source of the young shrubs was upper-soil water and was controlled by precipitation inputs. However, once the shrub gradually grew up and the roots reached sufficient depth, the main water sources change from the upper-soil layer recharged by precipitation to deep-soil water and groundwater, which were relatively stable and abundant in the desert ecosystem. These results also suggest that desert shrubs may be able to switch their main water sources to deep and reliable water sources as their age increases, and this adjustment to water availability carries significant importance for their acclimation to the desert habitat.

Key words: water-use pattern, oxygen stable isotope, water sources, Caragana microphylla

Figure 1

Location of the study site"

Figure 2

δ18O values for rainwater and the corresponding precipitation events, with the average daily temperature between April and October 2014 "

Figure 3

Seasonal variations in the stable-isotope composition of soil water (a) and soil water content (b) at depths of 0–100 cm in the study site"

Figure 4

Stable-isotope ratios of precipitation, groundwater, and stem water of Caragana microphylla in the 2014 growing season. The light gray bars depict the average δ18O values for precipitation; the dark grey bars depict the average δ18O values for groundwater "

Figure 5

Stable-isotope ratios (δ18O) of soil water and xylem water of Caragana microphylla during the measurement period in 2014. Error bars represent standard errors of the mean for stable-isotope ratios (δ18O) for soil water, n = 5. The gray bars depict the average stable-isotope ratios (δ18O, ± SE) for plant xylem water for each sampling date "

Figure 6

Seasonal changes in the relative mean contribution of soil water at different depths to Caragana microphylla. Data obtained from the IsoSource mixing model: shallow soil (0–50 cm), mid soil (50–150 cm), deep soil (150–300 cm), and groundwater (below 300 cm). Bars represent possible ranges of potential water sources "

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