Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

A global survey of carbon isotope discrimination in plants from high altitude

  • 1032 Accesses

  • 349 Citations


Carbon 13/12 isotope ratios have been determined from leaves of a hundred C3 plant species (or ecotypes) from all major mountain ranges of the globe, avoiding drought stressed areas. A general increase in 13C content was found with increasing altitude, i.e. overall discrimination against the heavy isotope is reduced at high elevation. The steepest decline of discrimination is observed in taxa typically ranging to highest elevations (e.g. the genus Ranunculus). Mean δ 13C for all samples collected between 2500 and 5600 m altitude is-26.15‰ compared to the lowland average of-28.80‰ (P<0.001). Forbs from highest elevations reach-24‰. According to theory of 13C discrimination this indicates decreasing relative limitation of carbon uptake by carboxylation. In other words, we estimate that the ratio of internal to external partial pressure of CO2 (p i /p a )in leaves of high elevation plants is lower than in leaves of low altitude. These results confirm recent gas exchange analyses in high and low elevation plants.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Ball JT, Berry JA (1982) The c i /c s ratio: A basis for predicting stomatal control of photosynthesis. Ann Rep Director Carn Inst Dept Plant Biol, Y B 1981/1982:88–92

  2. Blattner P, Hulston JR (1978) Proportional variation of geochemical δ 18O scales—an interlaboratory comparison. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 42:59–62

  3. Craig H (1957) Isotopic standards for carbon and oxigen correlation factors for mass-spectrometric analysis of carbon dioxide. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 12:133–149

  4. Downton WJS, Grant JR, Robinson SP (1985) Photosynthetic and stomatal response of spinach leaves to salt stress. Plant Physiol 77:85–88

  5. Ehleringer JR, Field CB, Lin ZF, Kuo CY (1986) Leaf Carbon isotope and mineral composition in subtropical plants along an irradiance cline. Oecologia (Berlin) 70:520–526

  6. Evans JR, Sharkey TD, Berry JA, Farquhar GD (1986) Carbon isotope discrimination measured concurrently with gas exchange to investigate CO2 diffusion in leaves of higher plants. Aust J Plant Physiol 13:281–292

  7. Farquhar GD (1980) Carbon isotope discrimination by plants: effects on carbon dioxide concentration and temperature via the ratio of intercellular and atmospheric CO2 concentrations. In: Pearman GI (ed) Carbon dioxide and climate: Australian research. Australian Acad Sci, Canberra, pp 105–110

  8. Farquhar GD, Richards RA (1984) Isotopic composition of plant carbon correlates with water-use efficiency of wheat genotypes. Aust J Plant Physiol 11:539–552

  9. Farquhar GD, O'Leary MH, Berry JA (1982) On the relationship between carbon isotope discrimination and the intercellular carbon dioxide concentration in leaves. Aust J Plant Physiol 9:121–137

  10. Francey RJ, Farquhar GD (1982) An explanation of 13C/12C variation in tree rings. Nature 297:28–31

  11. Fraser PJ, Pearman GI, Hydson P (1983) The global distribution of atmospheric carbon dioxide: 2 A review of provisional background observations. 1978–1980. J Geophys Res 88:3591–3598

  12. Guy RD, Reid DM (1986) Photosynthesis and the influence of CO2-enrichment on δ 13C values in a 3C halophyte. Plant Cell Environm 9:65–72

  13. Holtum JAM, O'Leary MH, Osmond CB (1983) Effect of varying CO2 partial pressure on photosynthesis and on carbon isotope composition of carbon-4 of malate from the crassulacean acid metabolism plant Kalanchoe daigremontiana Hamet et Perr. Plant Physiol 71:602–609

  14. Hubick KT, Farquhar GD, Shorter R (1986) Correlation between water-use efficiency and carbon isotope discrimination in diverse peanut (Arachis) germplasm. Aust J Plant Physiol 13:803–816

  15. Ivlev AA (1984) On a mechanism of appearance of carbon isotope effects during photosynthetic CO2 assimilation (russ). Fisiologija Rasteni 31:765–776

  16. Keeling CD (1960) The concentration and isotopic abundances of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tellus 12:200–203

  17. Keeling CD (1961) A mechanism for cyclic enrichment of carbon-12 by terrestrial plants. Geochimica Cosmochim Acta 24:299–313

  18. Körner Ch (1982) CO2 exchange in alpine sedge Carex curvula as influenced by canopy structure, light and temperature. Oecologia (Berlin) 53:98–104

  19. Körner Ch, Cochrane PM (1985) Stomatal responses and water relations of Eucalyptus pauciflora in summer along an elevational gradient. Oecologia (Berlin) 66:443–455

  20. Körner Ch, Diemer M (1987) In situ photosynthetic responses to light, temperature and carbon dioxide in herbaceous plants from low and high altitude. Functional Ecology (in press)

  21. Körner Ch, Mayr R (1981) Stomatal behaviour in alpine plant communities between 600 and 2600 metres above sea level. In: Grace J, Ford ED, Jarvis PG (eds) Plants and their atmospheric environment. Blackwell, Oxford London Edinburgh, pp 205–218

  22. Körner Ch, Scheel JA, Bauer H (1979) Maximum leaf diffusive conductance in vascular plants. Photosynthetica 13:45–82

  23. Körner Ch, Bannister P, Mark AF (1986) Altitudinal variation in stomatal conductance, nitrogen content and leaf anatomy in different plant life forms in New Zealand. Oecologia (Berlin) 69:577–588

  24. Larcher W (1983) Ökophysiologische Konstitutionseigenschaften von Gebirgspflanzen. Ber Deutsche Bot Ges 96:73–85

  25. Levin I (1984) Atmosphärisches CO2. Quellen und Senken auf dem europäischen Kontinent. Ph D Theses, Heidelberg

  26. Masle NJ, Farquahar GD (1987) Effects of soil strength on the relation of water use efficiency and growth to carbon isotope discrimination in wheat seedlings. Plant Physiol (in press)

  27. Medina E, Minchin P (1980) Stratification of δ 13C values in Amazonian rain forests. Oecologia (Berlin) 45:377–378

  28. Medina E, Montes G, Cuevas E, Roksandic Z (1986) Profiles of CO2 concentration and δ 13C values in tropical rain forests of the upper Rio Negro basin, Venezuela. J Trop Ecol 2:207–217

  29. Mook WG (1986) 13C in atmospheric CO2. Ned J Sea Research 20:211–223

  30. Mook WG, Koopmans M, Carter AF, Keeling CD (1983) Seasonal, latitudinal and secular variation in the abundance and isotopic ratios of atmospheric carbon dioxide 1. Results from land stations. J Geophys Res 88:10915–10933

  31. Mooney H, Troughton JH, Berry JA (1974) Arid climates and photosynthetic systems. Carnegie Institution Year Book 73:793–805

  32. O'Leary MH (1981) Carbon isotope fractionation in plants. Phytochemistry 20:553–557

  33. O'Leary MH, Osmond B (1980) Diffusional contribution to carbon isotope fractionation during dark CO2 fixation in CAM plants. Plant Physiol 66:1079–1084

  34. O'Leary MH, Treichel I, Rooney M (1986) Short-term measurement of carbon isotope fractionation in plants. Plant Physiol 80:578–582

  35. Schonboern HJ, Matschke J, Maas I, Schachler G (1984) Isotopendiskriminierung nach langzeitigem SO2-Stress bei Picea abies. Biochem Physiol Pfl 179:331–334

  36. Tieszen LL, Senyimba MM, Imbamba SK, Troughton JH (1979) The distribution of C3 and C4 grasses and carbon isotope discrimination along an altitudinal and moisture gradient in Kenya. Oecologia (Berlin) 37:337–350

  37. Troughton JH, Card KA, Hendy CH (1974a) Photosynthetic pathways and carbon isotope discrimination by plants. Carnegie Institution Year Book 73:768–779

  38. Troughton JH, Card KA, Björkman O (1974b) Temperature effects on the carbon isotope ratio of C3, C4 and CAM plants. Carnegie Institution Year Book 73:780–783

  39. Vogel JC (1980) Fractionation of carbon isotopes during photosynthesis. Sitzungsber Heidelberger Akad Wiss, Math-naturw K13, Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New York

  40. Wong SC, Cowan IR, Farquhar GD (1979) Stomatal conductance correlates with photosynthetic capacity. Nature 282:424–426

  41. Zumbrunn R, Friedli HJ, Neftel A, Rauber D (1983) CO2 measurements with infrared laser spectrometer on flask samples collected at the Jungfraujoch high-altitude research station (3500 meters asl) and with light aircraft up to 8000 meters over Switzerland. J Geophys Res 88:6853–6857

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Ch. Körner.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Körner, C., Farquhar, G.D. & Roksandic, Z. A global survey of carbon isotope discrimination in plants from high altitude. Oecologia 74, 623–632 (1988). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00380063

Download citation

Key words

  • Photosynthesis
  • δ 13C
  • Alpine ecology
  • Atmospheric CO2