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Journal of Arid Land  2020, Vol. 12 Issue (1): 115-129    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-020-0051-4
Research article     
Stable oxygen-hydrogen isotopes reveal water use strategies of Tamarix taklamakanensis in the Taklimakan Desert, China
DONG Zhengwu1,2,3,4, LI Shengyu1,*(), ZHAO Ying5, LEI Jiaqiang1, WANG Yongdong1, LI Congjuan1
1 Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Urumqi 830011, China
2 College of Resources and Environment Science, Xinjiang University, Urumqi 830046, China
3 College of Life Science, Xinjiang Normal University, Urumqi 830054, China
4 University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
5 College of Resources and Environmental Engineering, Ludong University, Yantai 264025, China
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Tamarix taklamakanensis, a dominant species in the Taklimakan Desert of China, plays a crucial role in stabilizing sand dunes and maintaining regional ecosystem stability. This study aimed to determine the water use strategies of T. taklamakanensis in the Taklimakan Desert under a falling groundwater depth. Four typical T. taklamakanensis nabkha habitats (sandy desert of Tazhong site, saline desert-alluvial plain of Qiemo site, desert-oasis ecotone of Qira site and desert-oasis ecotone of Aral site) were selected with different climate, soil, groundwater and plant cover conditions. Stable isotope values of hydrogen and oxygen were measured for plant xylem water, soil water (soil depths within 0-500 cm), snowmelt water and groundwater in the different habitats. Four potential water sources for T. taklamakanensis, defined as shallow, middle and deep soil water, as well as groundwater, were investigated using a Bayesian isotope mixing model. It was found that groundwater in the Taklimakan Desert was not completely recharged by precipitation, but through the river runoff from snowmelt water in the nearby mountain ranges. The surface soil water content was quickly depleted by strong evaporation, groundwater depth was relatively shallow and the height of T. taklamakanensis nabkha was relatively low, thus T. taklamakanensis primarily utilized the middle (23%±1%) and deep (31%±5%) soil water and groundwater (36%±2%) within the sandy desert habitat. T. taklamakanensis mainly used the deep soil water (55%±4%) and a small amount of groundwater (25%±2%) within the saline desert-alluvial plain habitat, where the soil water content was relatively high and the groundwater depth was shallow. In contrast, within the desert-oasis ecotone in the Qira and Aral sites, T. taklamakanensis primarily utilized the deep soil water (35%±1% and 38%±2%, respectively) and may also use groundwater because the height of T. taklamakanensis nabkha was relatively high in these habitats and the soil water content was relatively low, which is associated with the reduced groundwater depth due to excessive water resource exploitation and utilization by surrounding cities. Consequently, T. taklamakanensis showed distinct water use strategies among the different habitats and primarily depended on the relatively stable water sources (deep soil water and groundwater), reflecting its adaptations to the different habitats in the arid desert environment. These findings improve our understanding on determining the water sources and water use strategies of T. taklamakanensis in the Taklimakan Desert.

Key wordsTamarix taklamakanensis      water use strategies      stable isotopes      Bayesian isotope mixing model      deep soil water      groundwater      Taklimakan Desert     
Received: 08 May 2019      Published: 10 February 2020
Corresponding Authors: Shengyu LI     E-mail:
About author: *Corresponding author: LI Shengyu (E-mail:
Cite this article:

DONG Zhengwu, LI Shengyu, ZHAO Ying, LEI Jiaqiang, WANG Yongdong, LI Congjuan. Stable oxygen-hydrogen isotopes reveal water use strategies of Tamarix taklamakanensis in the Taklimakan Desert, China. Journal of Arid Land, 2020, 12(1): 115-129.

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Fig. 1 Location of sampling sites in the Taklimakan Desert. A, B, C and D represent the four sampling sites of Tamarix taklamakanensis habitats. A, sandy desert of Tazhong site; B, saline desert-alluvial plain of Qiemo site; C, desert-oasis ecotone of Qira site; D, desert-oasis ecotone of Aral site. It should be noted that only the important rivers are marked in the figure.
Site Location Groundwater depth (m) Soil surface Tamarix taklamakanensis nabkha AMT
Plant cover
Height (m) Length (m) Width (m)
Tazhong 39.06°N 5.0-6.0 Aeolian sandy soil 20 2.64 6.71 5.37 11.82 25.11 3559.60
Qiemo 38.03°N 4.5-5.5 Salt crust and aeolian sandy soil 50 3.27 7.45 5.89 10.68 27.97 2360.60
Qira 37.04°N 11.0-16.0 Shifting sand with light salinization 30-35 3.53 7.87 6.10 12.52 41.67 2790.20
Aral 40.42°N 8.0-10.0 Slight crust and moderately salinization 40-45 3.08 7.23 5.59 10.97 51.54 1813.20
Table 1 Meteorological and habitat data of the sampling sites within the Taklimakan Desert
Fig. 2 Monthly precipitation, evaporation and air temperature in the Tazhong (a), Qiemo (b), Qira (c) and Aral (d) sites. The values represent monthly means during 1997-2015 in the Tazhong site and during 1965-2015 in the Qiemo, Qira and Aral sites.
Fig. 3 Vertical distributions of soil particle size composition for the T. taklamakanensis nabkhas in the Tazhong (a), Qiemo (b), Qira (c) and Aral (d) sampling sites. Soil particle size composition was described in terms of the percentages of clay (<0.002 mm), silt (0.002-0.050 mm), very fine sand (0.050-0.100 mm) and fine sand (0.100-0.250 mm).
Fig. 4 Vertical distributions of soil water content (a), δ2H (b) and δ18O (c) values of soil water within the T. taklamakanensis nabkhas in the Tazhong, Qiemo, Qira and Aral sampling sites (n=4). Bars mean standard errors.
Fig. 5 Relationships between δ2H and δ18O in snowmelt water (n=6), soil water (n=4), groundwater (n=6) and plant xylem water (n=6) within the T. taklamakanensis nabkhas in the Tazhong (a), Qiemo (b), Qira (c) and Aral (d) sampling sites. All samples were taken during the rainless periods. Values of groundwater and snowmelt water represented long-term averages for each sampling site.
Site Plant xylem water Groundwater Snowmelt water
δ2H (‰) δ18O (‰) δ2H (‰) δ18O (‰) δ2H (‰) δ18O (‰)
Tazhong -56.648 (0.631) -6.424 (0.136) -57.332 (1.308) -8.060 (0.261) -47.463 (0.407) -7.285 (0.155)
Qiemo -63.547 (0.478) -5.697 (0.261) -59.232 (0.749) -7.242 (0.176)
Qira -45.718 (0.304) -2.899 (0.083) -37.042 (0.929) -6.472 (0.243)
Aral -57.493 (0.608) -3.378 (0.141) -64.188 (1.202) -8.745 (0.194)
Table 2 Stable isotope ratios of plant xylem water, groundwater and snowmelt water
Fig. 6 Relative contributions of shallow, middle and deep soil water and groundwater to the xylem water of T. taklamakanensis plants based on the Bayesian isotope mixing model. The respective probability density proportion plots of each possible water source (where the x axis represents the contribution of each possible water source to plant xylem water (%) and the y axis represents the frequency (%)) are superimposed on the plots of relative contributions of different water sources to the xylem water of T. taklamakanensis plants. Error bars represent standard errors. The patches of black, red, green and blue represent the relative contributions of shallow soil water, middle soil water, deep soil water and groundwater to the xylem water of T. taklamakanensis plants, respectively.
Fig. 7 Sketch of root distribution in the profiles of different T. taklamakanensis plants (I, II and III) in the same T. taklamakanensis nabkha
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