Root distribution of Nitraria sibirica with seasonally varying water sources in a desert habitat
In water-limited environments, the water sources used by desert shrubs are critical to understanding hydrological processes. Here we studied the oxygen stable isotope ratios (δ 18O) of stem water of Nitraria sibirica as well as those of precipitation, groundwater and soil water from different layers to identify the possible water sources for the shrub. The results showed that the shrub used a mixture of soil water, recent precipitation and groundwater, with shallow lateral roots and deeply penetrating tap (sinker) roots, in different seasons. During the wet period (in spring), a large proportion of stem water in N. sibirica was from snow melt and recent precipitation, but use of these sources declined sharply with the decreasing summer rain at the site. At the height of summer, N. sibirica mainly utilized deep soil water from its tap roots, not only supporting the growth of shoots but also keeping the shallow lateral roots well-hydrated. This flexibility allowed the plants to maintain normal metabolic processes during prolonged periods when little precipitation occurs and upper soil layers become extremely dry. With the increase in precipitation that occurs as winter approaches, the percentage of water in the stem base of a plant derived from the tap roots (deep soil water or ground water) decreased again. These results suggested that the shrub’s root distribution and morphology were the most important determinants of its ability to utilize different water sources, and that its adjustment to water availability was significant for acclimation to the desert habitat.
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