Summer water use by California coastal prairie grasses: fog, drought, and community composition
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Plants in the Mediterranean climate region of California typically experience summer drought conditions, but correlations between zones of frequent coastal fog inundation and certain species’ distributions suggest that water inputs from fog may influence species composition in coastal habitats. We sampled the stable H and O isotope ratios of water in non-photosynthetic plant tissue from a variety of perennial grass species and soil in four sites in northern California in order to determine the proportion of water deriving from winter rains and fog during the summer. The relationship between H and O stable isotopes from our sample sites fell to the right of the local meteoric water line (LMWL) during the summer drought, providing evidence that evaporation of water from the soil had taken place prior to the uptake of water by vegetation. We developed a novel method to infer the isotope values of water before it was subjected to evaporation in which we used experimental data to calculate the slope of the δH versus δO line versus the LMWL. After accounting for evaporation, we then used a two-source mixing model to evaluate plant usage of fog water. The model indicated that 28–66% of the water taken up by plants via roots during the summer drought came from fog rather than residual soil water from winter rain. Fog use decreased as distance from the coast increased, and there were significant differences among species in the use of fog. Rather than consistent differences in fog use by species whose distributions are limited to the coast versus those with broader distributions, species responded individualistically to summer fog. We conclude that fogwater inputs can mitigate the summer drought in coastal California for many species, likely giving an advantage to species that can use it over species that cannot.