Alpine Botany

, Volume 126, Issue 2, pp 153–166 | Cite as

Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope signals for an entire alpine flora, based on herbarium samples

  • Christian Körner
  • Sebastian Leuzinger
  • Susanna Riedl
  • Rolf T. Siegwolf
  • Lea Streule
Original Article


Stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes provide time-integrated signals of plant carbon and nitrogen relations. We assessed an entire alpine flora in the Swiss Alps at ca. 2400 m elevation, using year 2007 herbarium samples of 245 species, 141 genera and 42 families to explore functional trait diversity. Despite overall similar macro-environmental conditions (moisture, soils, elevation), signal variation covered the full spectrum known for C3 plants. Variation among means for plant families for both δ13C and δ15N was smaller than variation among species within families. Species identity was of far greater importance than family affiliation. Similarly, tissue nitrogen and carbon concentrations varied in a rather species-specific manner, not permitting any a priori plant functional group definition based on such traits. The study also yielded tissue-type specificity of isotope signals. The elevation signal in δ13C (known to be less negative at high elevation) was much less pronounced than observed previously in con-generic comparisons. Thus, elevational δ13C trends are hard to distinguish from species effects in mixed populations over narrow ranges of elevation. δ15N data offer more space for ecological interpretation and show family specificity of signals in few cases. Cyperaceae, the most prominent family in this region, show no discrimination against 15N (like Fabaceae) and must have access to N sources different from most other families. This deserves experimental clarification, given the significance of Cyperaceae in cold environments. Overall, our study evidenced very high functional diversity among alpine plant species, as captured by these isotope signals.


Biodiversity Functional traits Gas exchange Mountain Nutrition Soil 



We thank Catharina Lötscher and Mathias Saurer from the PSI in Villigen for their help with mass spectrometry analyses and Florian Schreier who helped with data analysis.

Supplementary material

35_2016_170_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (566 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 565 kb)
35_2016_170_MOESM2_ESM.eps (623 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (EPS 623 kb)


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Copyright information

© Swiss Botanical Society 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christian Körner
    • 1
  • Sebastian Leuzinger
    • 3
  • Susanna Riedl
    • 1
  • Rolf T. Siegwolf
    • 2
  • Lea Streule
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Botany, Department of Environmental SciencesUniversity of BaselBaselSwitzerland
  2. 2.Paul Scherrer Institute, PSIVilligenSwitzerland
  3. 3.Institute for Applied Ecology New Zealand, School of Applied SciencesAuckland University of TechnologyAucklandNew Zealand

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