Plant Ecology

, Volume 219, Issue 6, pp 719–735 | Cite as

Water source niche overlap increases with site moisture availability in woody perennials

  • Jessica S. Guo
  • Bruce A. Hungate
  • Thomas E. Kolb
  • George W. Koch


Classical niche partitioning theory posits increased competition for and partitioning of the most limiting resource among coexisting species. Coexisting plant species may vary in rooting depth, reflecting niche partitioning in water source use. Our goal was to assess the soil water partitioning of woody plant communities across northern Arizona along an elevational moisture gradient using stem and soil water isotopes from two sampling periods to estimate the use of different water sources. We hypothesized that niche overlap of water sources would be higher and monsoon precipitation uptake would be lower at sites with higher moisture availability. Pairwise niche overlap of coexisting species was calculated using mixing model estimates of proportional water use for three sources. Across the moisture gradient, niche overlap increased with site moisture index (precipitation/potential evapotranspiration) across seasons, and site moisture index explained 37% of the variation in niche overlap of intermediate and deeper sources of water. Desert trees utilized more winter source water than desert shrubs, suggesting the partitioning of water sources between functional groups. However, seasonal differences in surface water use were primarily found at intermediate levels of site moisture availability. Our findings support classical niche partitioning theory in that plants exhibit higher overlap of water sources when water is not a limiting resource.


Coexistence Niche overlap Water source Stable isotopes Plant communities Moisture gradient 



The authors thank Hannah Russell for her assistance in the field and lab, Jaimie Brown and Kimberly Samuels-Crow for their expertise in stable isotopes, Derek Sonderegger for his statistical advice, and the Ogle Lab for comments on this manuscript.


JG was supported by a Science Foundation Arizona Graduate Research Fellowship under Award GRF 0449-10.

Author contributions

JG, TK, BH, and GK conceived and designed the study; JG conducted fieldwork and lab analyses; JG and BH analyzed data; JG wrote the manuscript; and BH, TK, and GK provided editorial advice.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Alexander RR, Shepperd WD (1984) Silvical characteristics of Engelmann spruce. General Technical Report. Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, USDA Forest ServiceGoogle Scholar
  2. Allen CD, Breshears DD (1998) Drought-induced shift of a forest–woodland ecotone: rapid landscape response to climate variation. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 95:14839–14842CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  3. Araya YN, Silvertown J, Gowing DJ, McConway KJ, Peter Linder H, Midgley G (2011) A fundamental, eco-hydrological basis for niche segregation in plant communities. N Phytol 189:253–258CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Armstrong RA, McGehee R (1980) Competitive exclusion. Am Nat 115:151–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berndt HW, Gibbons RD (1958) Root distribution of some native trees and understory plants growing on three sites within ponderosa pine watersheds in Colorado. Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment StationGoogle Scholar
  6. Bigler C, Gavin DG, Gunning C, Veblen TT (2007) Drought induces lagged tree mortality in a subalpine forest in the Rocky Mountains. Oikos 116:1983–1994CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Breshears DD, Cobb NS, Rich PM, Price KP, Allen CD, Balice RG, Romme WH, Kastens JH, Floyd ML, Belnap J (2005) Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 102:15144–15148CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  8. Brown DE (1994) Biotic communities: southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake CityGoogle Scholar
  9. Brunel J-P, Walker GR, Kennett-Smith AK (1995) Field validation of isotopic procedures for determining sources of water used by plants in a semi-arid environment. J Hydrol 167:351–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Busch DE, Ingraham NL, Smith SD (1992) Water uptake in woody riparian phreatophytes of the southwestern United States: a stable isotope study. Ecol Appl. PubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Canadell J, Jackson RB, Ehleringer JR, Mooney HA, Sala OE, Schulze ED (1996) Maximum rooting depth of vegetation types at the global scale. Oecologia 108:583–595CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Cayan DR, Das T, Pierce DW, Barnett TP, Tyree M, Gershunov A (2010) Future dryness in the southwest US and the hydrology of the early 21st century drought. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:21271–21276CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Center U.S.N.G.D. (1998) ETOPO-5 five minute gridded world elevation. NGDC, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  14. Chesson P (2000) Mechanisms of maintenance of species diversity. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 31:343–366CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Chesson P, Gebauer RL, Schwinning S, Huntly N, Wiegand K, Ernest MS, Sher A, Novoplansky A, Weltzin JF (2004) Resource pulses, species interactions, and diversity maintenance in arid and semi-arid environments. Oecologia 141:236–253CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Chimner RA, Cooper DJ (2004) Using stable oxygen isotopes to quantify the water source used for transpiration by native shrubs in the San Luis Valley, Colorado U.S.A. Plant Soil 260:225–236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Clary WP, Tiedemann AR (1986) Distribution of biomass within small tree and shrub form Quercus gambelii stands. For Sci 32:234–242Google Scholar
  18. Connell JH (1978) Diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199:1302–1310CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Cottam WP (1954) Prevernal leafing of aspen in Utah Mountains. J Arnold Arbor 35:239–250Google Scholar
  20. Craig H (1961) Isotopic variations in meteoric waters. Science 133:1702–1703CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Cribari-Neto F, Zeileis A (2010) Beta regression in R. J Stat Softw 32:1–24Google Scholar
  22. Dansgaard W (1964) Stable isotopes in precipitation. Tellus 16:436–468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Davis SD, Mooney HA (1986) Water use patterns of four co-occurring Chaparral shrubs. Oecologia 70:172–177CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Dawson TE (1990) Spatial and physiological overlap of three co-occurring alpine willows. Funct Ecol 4:13–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Dawson T, Ehleringer J, Hall A, Farquhar G (1993) Water sources of plants as determined from xylem-water isotopic composition: perspectives on plant competition, distribution, and water relations. In: Stable isotopes and plant carbon–water relations. Academic, San Diego, p 465–496Google Scholar
  26. Dodd M, Lauenroth W, Welker J (1998) Differential water resource use by herbaceous and woody plant life-forms in a shortgrass steppe community. Oecologia 117:504–512CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Donovan L, Ehleringer J (1994) Water stress and use of summer precipitation in a Great Basin shrub community. Funct Ecol. Google Scholar
  28. Drake P, Franks P (2003) Water resource partitioning, stem xylem hydraulic properties, and plant water use strategies in a seasonally dry riparian tropical rainforest. Oecologia 137:321–329CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Ehleringer J, Dawson T (1992) Water uptake by plants: perspectives from stable isotope composition. Plant Cell Environ 15:1073–1082CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ehleringer JR, Osmond CB (1989) Stable isotopes. In: Pearcy RW, Ehleringer JR, Mooney HA, Rundel PW (eds) Plant physiological ecology: field methods and instrumentation. Chapman and Hall Ltd., London, pp 281–300CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ehleringer JR, Phillips SL, Schuster WS, Sandquist DR (1991) Differential utilization of summer rains by desert plants. Oecologia 88:430–434CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Ellsworth PZ, Williams DG (2007) Hydrogen isotope fractionation during water uptake by woody xerophytes. Plant Soil 291:93–107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Filella I, Peñuelas J (2003) Partitioning of water and nitrogen in co-occurring Mediterranean woody shrub species of different evolutionary history. Oecologia 137:51–61CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Flanagan L, Ehleringer J, Marshall J (1992) Differential uptake of summer precipitation among co-occurring trees and shrubs in a pinyon-juniper woodland. Plant Cell Environ 15:831–836CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Fravolini A, Hultine KR, Brugnoli E, Gazal R, English NB, Williams DG (2005) Precipitation pulse use by an invasive woody legume: the role of soil texture and pulse size. Oecologia 144:618–627CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Ganey JL, Vojta SC (2011) Tree mortality in drought-stressed mixed-conifer and ponderosa pine forests, Arizona, USA. For Ecol Manag 261:162–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Gebauer RL, Schwinning S, Ehleringer JR (2002) Interspecific competition and resource pulse utilization in a cold desert community. Ecology 83:2602–2616CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Gibbens RP, Lenz JM (2001) Root systems of some Chihuahuan Desert plants. J Arid Environ 49:221–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hendrick RL, Pregitzer KS (1993) Patterns of fine root mortality in two sugar maple forests. Nature 361:59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hermann RK, Petersen RG (1969) Root development and height increment of ponderosa pines in pumice soils of central Oregon. For Sci 15:226–237Google Scholar
  41. Horton J, Hart S, Kolb T (2003) Physiological condition and water source use of Sonoran Desert riparian trees at the Bill Williams River, Arizona, USA. Isot Environ Health Stud 39:69–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Huang CY, Anderegg WR (2012) Large drought-induced aboveground live biomass losses in southern Rocky Mountain aspen forests. Glob Change Biol 18:1016–1027CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. IAEA/WMO (2011) Global network of isotopes in precipitation. The GNIP databaseGoogle Scholar
  44. Jackson P, Cavelier J, Goldstein G, Meinzer F, Holbrook N (1995) Partitioning of water resources among plants of a lowland tropical forest. Oecologia 101:197–203CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Kane JM, Kolb TE, McMillin JD (2014) Stand-scale tree mortality factors differ by site and species following drought in southwestern mixed conifer forests. For Ecol Manag 330:171–182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kerhoulas LP, Kolb TE, Koch GW (2013) Tree size, stand density, and the source of water used across seasons by ponderosa pine in northern Arizona. For Ecol Manag 289:425–433CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kobe RK (1999) Light gradient partitioning among tropical tree species through differential seedling mortality and growth. Ecology 80:187–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Koepke DF, Kolb TE, Adams HD (2010) Variation in woody plant mortality and dieback from severe drought among soils, plant groups, and species within a northern Arizona ecotone. Oecologia 163:1079–1090CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Kulmatiski A, Beard KH, Verweij RJ, February EC (2010) A depth-controlled tracer technique measures vertical, horizontal and temporal patterns of water use by trees and grasses in a subtropical savanna. N Phytol 188:199–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Le Roux X, Bariac T, Mariotti A (1995) Spatial partitioning of the soil water resource between grass and shrub components in a West African humid savanna. Oecologia 104:147–155CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Levine JM, HilleRisLambers J (2009) The importance of niches for the maintenance of species diversity. Nature 461:254–257CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Lin G, Phillips SL, Ehleringer JR (1996) Monosoonal precipitation responses of shrubs in a cold desert community on the Colorado Plateau. Oecologia 106:8–17CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Loik ME, Breshears DD, Lauenroth WK, Belnap J (2004) A multi-scale perspective of water pulses in dryland ecosystems: climatology and ecohydrology of the western USA. Oecologia 141:269–281CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Lowe CH (1964) Arizona’s natural environment: landscapes and habitats. University of Arizona Press, TucsonGoogle Scholar
  55. Macarthur R, Levins R (1967) The limiting similarity, convergence, and divergence of coexisting species. Am Nat 101:377–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. MacDonald GM, Stahle DW, Diaz JV, Beer N, Busby SJ, Cerano-Paredes J, Cole JE, Cook ER, Endfield G, Gutierrez-Garcia G (2008) Climate warming and 21st-century drought in southwestern North America. EOS Trans Am Geophys Union 89:82. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Manning SJ, Barbour MG (1988) Root systems, spatial patterns, and competition for soil moisture between two desert subshrubs. Am J Bot 75:885–893CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. McAuliffe JR (1994) Landscape evolution, soil formation, and ecological patterns and processes in Sonoran Desert Bajadas. Ecol Monogr 64:111–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. McAuliffe JR, Hamerlynck EP (2010) Perennial plant mortality in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts in response to severe, multi-year drought. J Arid Environ 74:885–896CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Meinzer FC, Andrade JL, Goldstein G, Holbrook NM, Cavelier J, Wright SJ (1999) Partitioning of soil water among canopy trees in a seasonally dry tropical forest. Oecologia 121:293–301CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Miller G, Ambos N, Boness P, Reyher D, Robertson G, Scalzone K, Steinke R, Subirge T (1995) Terrestrial ecosystems survey of the Coconino National Forest. USDA Forest Service, Southwestern RegionGoogle Scholar
  62. Moerman JW, Cobb KM, Adkins JF, Sodemann H, Clark B, Tuen AA (2013) Diurnal to interannual rainfall δ18O variations in northern Borneo driven by regional hydrology. Earth Planet Sci Lett 369:108–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Moreno-Gutiérrez C, Dawson TE, Nicolás E, Querejeta JI (2012) Isotopes reveal contrasting water use strategies among coexisting plant species in a Mediterranean ecosystem. N Phytol 196:489–496CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Nippert JB, Knapp AK (2007) Soil water partitioning contributes to species coexistence in tallgrass prairie. Oikos 116:1017–1029CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Overpeck JT (2013) Climate science: the challenge of hot drought. Nature 503:350–351CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Parnell AC, Phillips DL, Bearhop S, Semmens BX, Ward EJ, Moore JW, Jackson AL, Grey J, Kelly DJ, Inger R (2013) Bayesian stable isotope mixing models. Environmetrics 24:387–399Google Scholar
  67. Phillips DL, Newsome SD, Gregg JW (2005) Combining sources in stable isotope mixing models: alternative methods. Oecologia 144:520–527CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Pregitzer KS, King JS, Burton AJ, Brown SE (2000) Responses of tree fine roots to temperature. N Phytol 147:105–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Prein AF, Holland GJ, Rasmussen RM, Clark MP, Tye MR (2016) Running dry: the U.S. Southwest’s drift into a drier climate state. Geophys Res Lett 43:1272–1279CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. PRISM Climate Group O.S.U. (2013) Gridded climate data for the contiguous USAGoogle Scholar
  71. R Core Team (2016) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, ViennaGoogle Scholar
  72. Rebele F (2000) Competition and coexistence of rhizomatous perennial plants along a nutrient gradient. Plant Ecol 147:77–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Risi C, Bony S, Vimeux F (2008) Influence of convective processes on the isotopic composition (δ18O and δD) of precipitation and water vapor in the tropics: 2. Physical interpretation of the amount effect. J Geophys Res Atmos. Google Scholar
  74. Schenk HJ, Jackson RB (2002) Rooting depths, lateral root spreads and below-ground/above-ground allometries of plants in water-limited ecosystems. J Ecol 90:480–494CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Schulze E-D, Mooney H, Sala O, Jobbagy E, Buchmann N, Bauer G, Canadell J, Jackson R, Loreti J, Oesterheld M (1996) Rooting depth, water availability, and vegetation cover along an aridity gradient in Patagonia. Oecologia 108:503–511CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Schwinning S, Ehleringer JR (2001) Water use trade-offs and optimal adaptations to pulse-driven arid ecosystems. J Ecol 89:464–480CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Schwinning S, Starr BI, Ehleringer JR (2005) Summer and winter drought in a cold desert ecosystem (Colorado Plateau). Part I: effects on soil water and plant water uptake. J Arid Environ 60:547–566CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Seager R, Vecchi GA (2010) Greenhouse warming and the 21st century hydroclimate of southwestern North America. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:21277–21282CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  79. Seager R, Ting M, Held I, Kushnir Y, Lu J, Vecchi G, Huang H-P, Harnik N, Leetmaa A, Lau N-C, Li C, Velez J, Naik N (2007) Model projections of an imminent transition to a more arid climate in Southwestern North America. Science 316:1181–1184CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  80. Sepulveda AJ, Lowe WH, Marra PP (2012) Using stable isotopes to test for trophic niche partitioning: a case study with stream salamanders and fish. Freshw Biol 57:1399–1409CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Sheldrick B, Wang C (1993) Particle size distribution. In: Soil sampling and methods of analysis. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, p 499–511Google Scholar
  82. Sheppard PR, Comrie AC, Packin GD, Angersbach K, Hughes MK (2002) The climate of the US Southwest. Clim Res 21:219–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Silvertown J (2004) Plant coexistence and the niche. Trends Ecol Evol 19:605–611CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Soil Survey Staff N.R.C.S., United States Department of Agriculture. Soil series classification databaseGoogle Scholar
  85. Stratton LC, Goldstein G, Meinzer FC (2000) Temporal and spatial partitioning of water resources among eight woody species in a Hawaiian dry forest. Oecologia 124:309–317CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  86. Szarek SR, Woodhouse RM (1978) Ecophysiological studies of Sonoran Desert plants. IV. Seasonal photosynthetic capacities of Acacia greggii and Cercidium microphyllum. Oecologia 37:221–229CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  87. Thornthwaite CW (1948) An approach toward a rational classification of climate. Geogr Rev 38:55–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. USGS (2017) National Water Information System data available on the World Wide Web (USGS Water Data for the Nation)Google Scholar
  89. Valentini R, Mugnozza GS, Ehleringer J (1992) Hydrogen and carbon isotope ratios of selected species of a Mediterranean macchia ecosystem. Funct Ecol. Google Scholar
  90. Walker GR, Woods PH, Allison GB (1994) Interlaboratory comparison of methods to determine the stable isotope composition of soil water. Chem Geol 111:297–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Wardle P (1968) Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii Engel.) at its upper limits on the front range, Colorado. Ecology 49:483–495CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Welker JM (2000) Isotopic (δ18O) characteristics of weekly precipitation collected across the USA: an initial analysis with application to water source studies. Hydrol Process 14:1449–1464CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Weltzin JF, McPherson GR (1997) Spatial and temporal soil moisture resource partitioning by trees and grasses in a temperate savanna, Arizona, USA. Oecologia 112:156–164CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  94. Wershaw R, Friedman I, Heller S, Frank P (1966) Hydrogen isotopic fractionation of water passing through trees. In: Hobson GD, Speers GC, Inderson DE (eds) Advances in organic geochemistry. International series of monographs on earth sciences, vol 32. Pergamon Press, New York, pp 55–67Google Scholar
  95. West AG, Patrickson SJ, Ehleringer JR (2006) Water extraction times for plant and soil materials used in stable isotope analysis. Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom 20:1317–1321CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  96. West A, Hultine K, Burtch K, Ehleringer J (2007a) Seasonal variations in moisture use in a piñon-juniper woodland. Oecologia 153:787–798CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  97. West AG, Hultine KR, Jackson TL, Ehleringer JR (2007b) Differential summer water use by Pinus edulis and Juniperus osteosperma reflects contrasting hydraulic characteristics. Tree Physiol 27:1711–1720CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  98. West AG, Goldsmith GR, Brooks PD, Dawson TE (2010) Discrepancies between isotope ratio infrared spectroscopy and isotope ratio mass spectrometry for the stable isotope analysis of plant and soil waters. Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom 24:1948–1954CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  99. Williams DG, Ehleringer JR (2000) Intra- and interspecific variation for summer precipitation use in pinyon-juniper Woodlands. Ecol Monogr 70:517–537Google Scholar
  100. Williams AP, Allen CD, Macalady AK, Griffin D, Woodhouse CA, Meko DM, Swetnam TW, Rauscher SA, Seager R, Grissino-Mayer HD (2013) Temperature as a potent driver of regional forest drought stress and tree mortality. Nat Clim Change 3:292–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Yang H, Auerswald K, Bai Y, Han X (2011) Complementarity in water sources among dominant species in typical steppe ecosystems of Inner Mongolia, China. Plant Soil 340:303–313CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biological Sciences and Center for Ecosystem Science and SocietyNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA
  2. 2.School of ForestryNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA

Personalised recommendations