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Journal of Arid Land  2021, Vol. 13 Issue (2): 109-122    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-021-0051-z
Research article     
Seasonal changes in the water-use strategies of three herbaceous species in a native desert steppe of Ningxia, China
HU Haiying1,2,3, ZHU Lin1,2, LI Huixia3, XU Dongmei3, XIE Yingzhong1,2,3,*()
1Breeding Base for State Key Laboratory of Land Degradation and Ecological Restoration of North-western China, Ningxia University, Yinchuan 750021, China
2Key Laboratory for Restoration and Reconstruction of Degraded Ecosystem in North-western China of Ministry of Education, Ningxia University, Yinchuan 750021, China
3School of Agriculture, Ningxia University, Yinchuan 750021, China
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Frequent periods of drought conditions are known to limit plant performance, primary production, and ecosystem stability in arid and semi-arid desert steppe environments. Plants often avoid competition by shifting their water use seasonally, which affects the water-use patterns of dominant species as well as the composition and structure of plant communities. However, the water-use strategies of dominant herbaceous species, which grow under natural field conditions in the desert steppe region of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, China, are poorly known. Here, we explored the possible sources of water uptake and water-use efficiency (WUE) of three dominant herbaceous plant species (Stipa breviflora, Agropyron mongolicum, and Glycyrrhiza uralensis) in a native desert steppe in the semi-arid area of Ningxia through an analysis of multiple parameters, including (1) the stable isotopic oxygen and hydrogen (δ 18O and δ 2H) compositions of precipitation, soil water, and stem water, (2) the carbon isotope ( 13C) composition of leaves, and (3) the soil water contents, based on field sampling across varying water conditions from June to September, 2017. Frequent small precipitation events replenished shallow soil water, whereas large events only percolated down to the deep soil layers. Changes in soil water availability affected the water-use patterns of plants. Generally, during light precipitation periods, the deep root system of G. uralensis accessed deeper (>80 cm) soil water, whereas S. breviflora and A. mongolicum, which only have shallow roots, primarily absorbed water from the shallow and middle soil layers. As precipitation increased, all three plant species primarily obtained water from the shallow soil layers. Variation in soil water uptake between the dry and wet seasons enabled plants to make better use of existing satoil water. In addition, the δ 13C values of G. uralensis and S. breviflora were higher than those of A. mongolicum. The δ 13C values of the three plant species were significantly negatively correlated with soil water content. Therefore, G. uralensis and S. breviflora maintained a higher WUE through their conservative and water-saving strategies across the entire growing season. In contrast, A. mongolicum, with a relatively low WUE in the wet season but a high WUE in the dry season, exhibited a more flexible water-use strategy. The different water-use strategies of these dominant plant species demonstrated the mechanisms by which plant communities can respond to drought.

Key wordsstable isotope      water source      water availability      water-use efficiency      soil water      desert steppe     
Received: 26 March 2020      Published: 10 February 2021
Corresponding Authors: XIE Yingzhong     E-mail:
About author: XIE Yingzhong (E-mail:
Cite this article:

HU Haiying, ZHU Lin, LI Huixia, XU Dongmei, XIE Yingzhong. Seasonal changes in the water-use strategies of three herbaceous species in a native desert steppe of Ningxia, China. Journal of Arid Land, 2021, 13(2): 109-122.

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Fig. 1 Geographic location of the study area (a) and photographs of Stipa breviflora (b), Agropyron mongolicum (c), and Glycyrrhiza uralensis (d)
Fig. 2 Photographs showing compacted sierozem in the form of unconsolidated sediment in the A. mongolicum site (a) and compacted aeolian sandy soil in the S. breviflora+G. uralensis site (b)
Species Family Height
Agropyron mongolicum Gramineae 28.13±12.5 31.40±11.70 12.80±5.40 Sparse clump-type, with the rooting depth of 80-100 cm
Stipa breviflora Gramineae 12.93±2.30 13.40±5.60 21.60±13.50 Dense bundle-type, with the rooting depth of 60-80 cm
Glycyrrhiza uralensis Leguminosae 21.60±5.10 8.80±3.60 5.20±2.90 Rhizome-type, with the rooting depth of 150-200 cm
Table 1 Characteristics of the dominant plant species
Fig. 3 Variations in soil texture as a function of depth in A. mongolicum (a) and S. breviflora+G. uralensis (b) sites. Error bar represents standard error of the mean of three observations. The particle size classes were defined as coarse sand (0.10-2.00 mm), fine sand (0.05-0.10 mm), and silt and clay (<0.05 mm).
Fig. 4 Daily precipitation and temperature from May to October 2017
Fig. 5 Curves of δ2H and δ18O values of different water sources. (a), precipitation and groundwater (GW); (b), plant stem water and soil water; (c), soil water of 0-60 and 60-140 cm layers; (d), soil water of plant communities. GMWL, global meteoric water line (δ2H=8δ18O+10); LMWL, local meteoric water line (δ2H=8.10δ18O+7.18; R2=0.9332; n=9); SWEL, soil water evaporation line; PWEL, plant stem water evaporation line. The corresponding curve equations of SWEL and PWEL are shown in Table 2.
Item Equation Confidence interval of model parameters R2 F value df Sig.
At 2.50% level At 97.50% level
δ2H δ18O δ2H δ18O
SWEL δ2H=3.59δ18O-37.35 -39.94 3.27 -34.77 3.92 0.74 481.80 169 ***
PWEL δ2H=2.57δ18O-44.11 -47.88 1.82 -40.34 3.32 0.65 50.25 25 ***
SWEL (0-60 cm) δ2H=2.85δ18O-42.99 -47.48 2.27 -38.50 3.44 0.58 95.31 70 ***
SWEL (60-140 cm) δ2H=3.98δ18O-34.20 -37.27 3.61 -31.12 4.35 0.82 446.10 97 ***
SWEL (A. mongolicum) δ2H=4.45δ18O-31.57 -35.37 3.98 -27.77 4.91 0.86 364.80 59 ***
SWEL (S. breviflora) δ2H=2.99δ18O-42.33 -45.53 2.58 -39.12 3.38 0.77 220.10 64 ***
SWEL (G. uralensis) δ2H=1.74δ18O-50.07 -55.84 1.00 -44.30 2.47 0.35 22.71 43 ***
Table 2 Confidence intervals and statistics of the curve equations of SWEL and PWEL
Factor Item Soil water content (%) Soil water
δ2H value (‰) δ18O value (‰)
Season Early dry season 5.29c -61.42a -6.87a
Late dry season 6.34b -66.77b -8.20b
Wet season 9.05a -68.43b -8.32b
Sig. *** *** ***
Community A. mongolicum 9.86a -66.49a -7.80a
S. breviflora 5.78b -65.58a -7.72a
G. uralensis 5.47b -65.04a -7.98a
Sig. *** ns ns
Soil layer 0-20 cm 4.80c -63.22a -7.06a
20-40 cm 7.14b -64.34ab -7.52ab
40-60 cm 5.17c -65.93b -8.08bc
60-80 cm 4.91c -65.51ab -7.93bc
80-100 cm 8.96a -66.88bc -8.31c
100-120 cm 8.91a -69.18c -8.59c
120-140 cm 9.17a -64.99ab -7.37ab
Sig. *** *** ***
Table 3 Comparisons in soil water content and the δ2H and δ18O values of soil water in different soil layers of different plant communities in different seasons
Fig. 6 Soil water contents at 0-140 cm soil depths for S. breviflora (a), G. uralensis (b), and A. mongolicum (c) communities measured in different seasons
Factor Item δ13C value (‰) δ2H value (‰) δ18O value (‰)
Season Early dry season -26.23a -60.69b -5.04b
Late dry season -26.07a -49.43a -2.72a
Wet season -26.90b -56.75b -5.68b
Sig. *** *** ***
Plant species A. mongolicum -27.58b -50.12a -2.49a
S. breviflora -25.85a -56.81b -4.96b
G. uralensis -25.76a -59.93b -5.99b
Sig. *** *** ***
Season×Species Sig. *** *** ***
Table 4 Comparisons of the δ2H and δ18O values of stem water and δ13C values of leaves among different plant species in different seasons
Fig. 7 δ2H (a) and δ18O (b) values of stem water and δ13C values (c) of leaves for S. breviflora, A. mongolicum, and G. uralensis in different seasons. Error bar represents standard error of mean of the observed values.
Species Parameter δ18O value δ2H value δ13C value
A. mongolicum Soil water content -0.00 0.37 -0.80**
δ18O value 1.00 0.79* -0.26
δ2H value 0.79* 1.00 -0.46
δ13C value -0.26 -0.46 1.00
S. breviflora Soil water content -0.50 -0.02 -0.77*
δ18O value 1.00 0.78* 0.89**
δ2H value 0.78* 1.00 0.55
δ13C value 0.89** 0.55 1.00
G. uralensis Soil water content 0.16 -0.53 -0.93**
δ18O value 1.00 0.51 -0.18
δ2H value 0.51 1.00 0.65
δ13C value -0.18 0.65 1.00
Table 5 Correlations among soil water content, δ2H and δ18O values of stem water, and δ13C values of leaves for A. mongolicum, S. breviflora, and G. uralensis communities
Fig. 8 Relative contributions of potential water sources for G. uralensis, S. breviflora, and A. mongolicum in the different soil layers in the early dry season (a, b, c) and wet season (d, e, f). Bars represent the possible relative contribution ranges of potential water sources.
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