Partitioning of soil water among canopy trees in a seasonally dry tropical forest


Little is known about partitioning of soil water resources in species-rich, seasonally dry tropical forests. We assessed spatial and temporal patterns of soil water utilization in several canopy tree species on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, during the 1997 dry season. Stable hydrogen isotope composition (δD) of xylem and soil water, soil volumetric water content (θv), and sap flow were measured concurrently. Evaporative fractionation near the soil surface caused soil water δD to decrease from about –15‰ at 0.1 m to –50 to –55‰ at 1.2 m depth. Groundwater sampled at the sources of nearby springs during this period yielded an average δD value of –60‰. θv increased sharply and nearly linearly with depth to 0.7 m, then increased more slowly between 0.7 and 1.05 m. Based on xylem δD values, water uptake in some individual plants appeared to be restricted largely to the upper 20 cm of the soil profile where θv dropped below 20% during the dry season. In contrast, other individuals appeared to have access to water at depths greater than 1 m where θv remained above 45% throughout the dry season. The depths of water sources for trees with intermediate xylem δD values were less certain because variation in soil water δD between 20 and 70 cm was relatively small. Xylem water δD was also strongly dependent on tree size (diameter at breast height), with smaller trees appearing to preferentially tap deeper sources of soil water than larger trees. This relationship appeared to be species independent. Trees able to exploit progressively deeper sources of soil water during the dry season, as indicated by increasingly negative xylem δD values, were also able to maintain constant or even increase rates of water use. Seasonal courses of water use and soil water partitioning were associated with leaf phenology. Species with the smallest seasonal variability in leaf fall were also able to tap increasingly deep sources of soil water as the dry season progressed. Comparison of xylem, soil, and groundwater δD values thus pointed to spatial and temporal partitioning of water resources among several tropical forest canopy tree species during the dry season.

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Received: 5 October 1998 / Accepted: 23 June 1999

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Meinzer, F., Andrade, J., Goldstein, G. et al. Partitioning of soil water among canopy trees in a seasonally dry tropical forest. Oecologia 121, 293–301 (1999).

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  • Key words Roots
  • Sap flow
  • Leaf phenology
  • Stable hydrogen isotope ratio
  • Panama