Original Papers


, Volume 74, Issue 2, pp 236-246

First online:

The 15N/14N ratios of plants in South Africa and Namibia: relationship to climate and coastal/saline environments

  • T. H. E. HeatonAffiliated withNatural Isotopes Division, National Physical Research Laboratory, CSIR

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Data are presented for the 15N/14N ratios of 140 indigenous terrestrial plants from a wide variety of natural habitats in South Africa and Namibia. Over much of the area, from high-rainfall mountains to arid deserts, the δ 15N values of plants lie typically in the range -1 to +6‰; with no evident differences between C3 plants and C4 grasses. There is a slight correlation between δ 15N and aridity, but this is less marked than the correlation between the δ 15N values of animal bones and aridity. At coastal or saline sites, however, the mean δ 15N values for plants are higher than those at nearby inland or non-saline sites-e.g.: arid Namib coast (10‰ higher than inland Namib); wet Natal beach (5‰ higher than inland Natal); saline soils 500 km from coast (4‰ higher than non-saline soils). High values were also found at one site where there were no marked coastal or saline influences. These environmental effects on the isotopic composition of plants will extend upwards to the animals and humans they support. They therefore have important consequences for the use of nitrogen isotope data in the study of the dietary habits and trophic structures of modern and prehistoric communities.

Key words

Plants 15N/14N ratios Climate Coastal Saline