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Streamside trees that do not use stream water

Abstract

A LONG-STANDING axiom is that plant distribution is strongly influenced by soil moisture content1,2. While it has been shown that plant taxa inhabiting streamside communities receive or use more water3, it is assumed that this water is obtained from the stream adjacent to where they are found growing. Here we show, using hydrogen isotope ratio analyses at natural abundance levels, that mature streamside trees growing in or directly next to a perennial stream used little or none of the surface stream water. The deuterium to hydrogen content of both source and xylem waters indicated that mature trees were using waters from deeper strata. Although adult trees may have roots distributed continuously throughout a soil profile, it seemed that the most active sites of water absorbtion were limited to deeper soil layers. In contrast, small streamside individuals appeared to use stream water, whereas small non-streamside individuals used recent precipitation as their primary water source. Our analyses provide both a relatively non-destructive method for assessing water sources of plants and a means of assessing potential competitive interactions among cooccurring taxa. In addition, the method may aid in resolving the role of water in determining plant distributions in areas characterized by sharp soil moisture gradients.

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Dawson, T., Ehleringer, J. Streamside trees that do not use stream water. Nature 350, 335–337 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1038/350335a0

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