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Water use patterns of co-occurring C3 and C4 shrubs in the Gurbantonggut desert in northwestern China

Tiemuerbieke, Bahejiayinaer, Min, Xiao-Jun, Zang, Yong-Xin, Xing, Peng, Ma, Jian-Ying, Sun, Wei
The Science of the total environment 2018 v.634 pp. 341-354
C3 plants, C4 plants, Haloxylon ammodendron, Tamarix, climate change, ecophysiology, ecosystems, groundwater, intraspecific variation, prediction, root systems, rooting, shrubs, snowmelt, soil water, space and time, spring, stable isotopes, summer, topography, water potential, water stress, water uptake, xylem, China
In water-limited ecosystems, spatial and temporal partitioning of water sources is an important mechanism that facilitates plant survival and lessens the competition intensity of co-existing plants. Insights into species-specific root functional plasticity and differences in the water sources of co-existing plants under changing water conditions can aid in accurate prediction of the response of desert ecosystems to future climate change. We used stable isotopes of soil water, groundwater and xylem water to determine the seasonal and inter- and intraspecific differences variations in the water sources of six C3 and C4 shrubs in the Gurbantonggut desert. We also measured the stem water potentials to determine the water stress levels of each species under varying water conditions. The studied shrubs exhibited similar seasonal water uptake patterns, i.e., all shrubs extracted shallow soil water recharged by snowmelt water during early spring and reverted to deeper water sources during dry summer periods, indicating that all of the studied shrubs have dimorphic root systems that enable them to obtain water sources that differ in space and time. Species in the C4 shrub community exhibited differences in seasonal water absorption and water status due to differences in topography and rooting depth, demonstrating divergent adaptations to water availability and water stress. Haloxylon ammodendron and T. ramosissima in the C3/C4 mixed community were similar in terms of seasonal water extraction but differed with respect to water potential, which indicated that plant water status is controlled by both root functioning and shoot eco-physiological traits. The two Tamarix species in the C3 shrub community were similar in terms of water uptake and water status, which suggests functional convergence of the root system and physiological performance under same soil water conditions. In different communities, Haloxylon ammodendron differed in terms of summer water extraction, which suggests that this species exhibits plasticity with respect to rooting depth under different soil water conditions. Shrubs in the Gurbantonggut desert displayed varying adaptations across species and communities through divergent root functioning and shoot eco-physiological traits.