Plant and Soil

, Volume 215, Issue 1, pp 73-84

First online:

Monitoring plant physiological characteristics to evaluate mine site revegetation: A case study from the wet-dry tropics of northern Australia

  • Susanne SchmidtAffiliated withDepartment of Botany, The University of Queensland
  • , George R. StewartAffiliated withDepartment of Botany, The University of Queensland
  • , N. AshwathAffiliated withEnvironmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist, Environmental Protection Agency

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Biologically driven markers or monitors were used to evaluate plant and ecosystem health of uranium-mining affected sites. Plant water, nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) status were used to measure physiological characteristics of tree and shrub species at sites perturbed by mining activities (waste rock dumps: WRD 1, WRD 2; mine wastewater irrigated woodland) and of species at undisturbed woodland (tropical savanna). Plant water status was evaluated by measuring leaf relative water content (RWC) and carbon isotope discrimination (δ13C). Leaf RWC varied significantly (P<0.0001) between wet and dry season in species at the woodland sites with higher RWC in the wet season compared to the dry season. No seasonal differences were observed in RWC in species at the WRDs. Leaf δ13C was similar in species at woodland sites and WRD 2 (−28.8 to −28.1‰) but was significantly (P<0.05) lower in species at WRD 1 (−27.6‰). This suggests that species at WRD 1 had a lower water availability and/or lower water use compared to species at all other sites. WRD substrate had an up to 4-orders of magnitude greater availability of inorganic phosphate (Pi) compared to woodland soil as determined using in situ ion exchange resin. Pi concentrations in xylem sap of species at WRDs were 2- to 3-fold higher compared to species at woodland sites. Plant nitrate reductase (NR) activity was low in most species at woodland and WRD 1. In contrast, Eucalyptus and Acacia species had high NR activities of up to 300–700 pkat g-1 fw at WRD 2 indicating that these species had greater nitrate use than species at all other sites. Nitrate availability in the top five cm of the profile, as determined using in situ ion exchange resins, increased at all sites in the wet season, but no significant differences were observed between sites using this method. However, traditional soil analysis revealed that WRD substrate had a 2-times higher nitrate content (0 to 1000 mm depth) compared to woodland soil. Thus, it is likely that plants at WRD2 accessed nitrate from deeper parts of the profile. Proline, an indicator of plant stress, was found in appreciable quantities in leaves of herbaceous species but not in woody species. Soil and leaf δ15N were measured to investigate N-cycling and the contribution of diazotrophic N2 fixation to plant N nutrition. Soil δ15N values were highest and most variable at WRD 2 (6.2‰) compared to all other sites (irrigated woodland 3.1‰, undisturbed woodland 2.5‰, WRD 1 0.9‰). This may indicate that N-turnover and nitrification was greatest at WRD 2 leading to greater 15N enrichment of soil N. At all sites, Acacia species were nodulated and putatively fixing N2. With the exception of WRD 2 where leaf δ15N of Acacia species averaged 0.9‰, Acacia species had 15N depleted values characteristic of species that receive N derived from N2 fixation (−0.8 to −0.6‰).

Eucalyptus species at the woodland also had 15N depleted values (average −0.4‰) but 15N enriched values (0.3 to 1.8‰) at the three mining affected sites. The results show that for the plants studied foliar δ15N could not be used as an unequivocal measure of plant N sources. The results suggest that biomonitoring of plant and ecosystem health has potential in evaluating performance of mine site revegetation.

Acacia Eucalyptus mine site revegetation nitrate 15N 13C tropical savanna waste rock dump water relations tropical woodland