Leaf δ13C variability with elevation, slope aspect, and precipitation in the southwest United States

Peter K. Van de Water, Steven W. Leavitt, Julio L. Betancourt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

199 Scopus citations


Leaves from several desert and woodland species, including gymnosperms and angiosperms with both C3 and C4 physiology, were analyzed to detect trends in δ13Cleaf with elevation and slope aspect along two transects in southeastern Utah and south-central New Mexico, USA. The main difference between the two transects is the steeper elevational gradient for mean annual and summer precipitation in the southern transect. For any given species, we found that isotopic differences between individual plants growing at the same site commonly equal differences measured for plants along the entire altitudinal gradient. In C3 plants, δ13Cleaf values become slightly enriched at the lowest elevations, the opposite of trends identified in more humid regions. Apparently, increasing water-use efficiency with drought stress offsets the influence of other biotic and abiotic factors that operate to decrease isotopic discrimination with elevation. For some species shared by the two transects (e.g., Pinus edulis and Cercocarpus montanus), δ13Cleaf values are dramatically depleted at sites that receive more than 550 mm mean annual precipitation, roughly the boundary (pedalfer-pedocal) at which soils commonly fill to field capacity in summer and carbonates are leached. We hypothesize that, in summer-wet areas, this may represent the boundary at which drought stress overtakes other factors in determining the sign of δ13Cleaf with elevation. The opposition of isotopic trends with elevation in arid versus humid regions cautions against standard correction for elevation in comparative studies of δ13Cleaf.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)332-343
Number of pages12
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002


  • C3 and C4 plants
  • Carbon isotope composition
  • Elevation
  • Precipitation
  • Slope aspect

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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