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Leaf δ13C is an indicator of water-use efficiency and provides useful information on the carbon and water balance of plants over longer periods. Variation in leaf δ13C between or within species is determined by plant physiological characteristics and environmental factors. We hypothesized that variation in leaf δ13C values among dominant species reflected ecosystem patterns controlled by large-scale environmental gradients, and that within-species variation indicates plant adaptability to environmental conditions. To test these hypotheses, we collected leaves of dominant species from six ecosystems across a horizontal vegetation transect on the Tibetan Plateau, as well as leaves of Kobresia pygmaea (herbaceous) throughout its distribution and leaves of two coniferous tree species (Picea crassifolia, Abies fabri) along an elevation gradient throughout their distribution in the Qilian Mountains and Gongga Mountains, respectively. Leaf δ13C of dominant species in the six ecosystems differed significantly, with values for evergreen coniferous<evergreen broadleaved tree<alpine shrub<sedges∼graminoid<xeromorphs. Leaf δ13C values of the dominant species and of K. pygmaea were negatively correlated with annual precipitation along a water gradient, but leaf δ13C of A. fabri was not significantly correlated with precipitation in habitats without water-stress. This confirms that variation of δ13C between or within species reflects plant responses to environmental conditions. Leaf δ13C of the dominant species also reflected water patterns on the Tibetan Plateau, providing evidence that precipitation plays a primary role in controlling ecosystem changes from southeast to northwest on the Tibetan Plateau.