, Volume 154, Issue 2, pp 247–258 | Cite as

Past climate changes and ecophysiological responses recorded in the isotope ratios of saguaro cactus spines

  • Nathan B. English
  • David L. Dettman
  • Darren R. Sandquist
  • David G. Williams


The stable isotope composition of spines produced serially from the apex of columnar cacti has the potential to be used as a record of changes in climate and physiology. To investigate this potential, we measured the δ18O, δ13C and F14C values of spines from a long-lived columnar cactus, saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea). To determine plant age, we collected spines at 11 different heights along one rib from the stem apex (3.77 m height) to the base of a naturally occurring saguaro. Fractions of modern carbon (F14C) ranged from 0.9679 to 1.5537, which is consistent with ages between 1950 and 2004. We observed a very strong positive correlation (r = 0.997) between the F14C age of spines and the age of spines determined from direct and repeated height measurements taken on this individual over the past 37 years. A series of 96 spines collected from this individual had δ18O values ranging from 38‰ to 50‰ [Vienna standard mean ocean water (VSMOW)] and δ13C values from −11.5‰ to −8.5‰ [Vienna Peedee belemnite (VPDB)]. The δ18O and δ13C values of spines were positively correlated (r = 0.45, P < 0.0001) and showed near-annual oscillations over the ∼15-year record. This pattern suggests that seasonal periods of reduced evaporative demand or greater precipitation input may correspond to increased daytime CO2 uptake. The lowest δ18O and δ13C values of spines observed occurred during the 1983 and 1993 El Niño years, suggesting that the stable isotope composition recorded in spine tissue may serve as a proxy for these climate events. We compared empirical models and data from potted experimental cacti to validate these observations and test our hypotheses. The isotopic records presented here are the first ever reported from a chronosequence of cactus spines and demonstrate that tissues of columnar cacti, and potentially other long-lived succulents, may contain a record of past physiological and climatic variation.


Stable isotopes Oxygen-18 Carbon-13 Growth rate Carnegiea gigantea Cactus Radiocarbon El Niño southern oscillation (ENSO) 



This work was funded by an Environmental Protection Agency STAR Fellowship, a William G. McGinnies Scholarship and a Geological Society of America student grant. Jeff Pigati and Christa Placzek processed 14C samples to graphite, and Warren Beck at the NSF-Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory provided 14C analyses. Valuable discussions, data and laboratory space were provided by K. Anchukitus, T. Ault, J. Bower, J. Cole, T. Drezner, C. Eastoe, M. Fan, K. Hultine, S. Leavitt, J. Mauseth, J. Overpeck, B. Peachy, E. Pierson, D. Potts, J. Quade and R. Turner. We are also grateful for additional comments from F. C. Meinzer and two anonymous reviewers. All experiments complied with the current laws of the USA and the State of Arizona.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nathan B. English
    • 1
  • David L. Dettman
    • 1
  • Darren R. Sandquist
    • 2
  • David G. Williams
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of GeosciencesUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological ScienceCalifornia State UniversityFullertonUSA
  3. 3.Departments of Renewable Resources and BotanyUniversity of WyomingLaramieUSA

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