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Natural abundance of 13C and 15N in C3 and C4 vegetation of southern Africa: patterns and implications


Robert J. Swap, fax +1 (434) 924 4761, e-mail:


The mean annual rainfall in southern Africa is found to explain over half of the observed variance in the stable nitrogen (N) isotopic signatures of C3 vegetation in southern Africa (r2=0.54, P<0.01). The inverse relationship between the stable N isotopic signatures of foliar samples from C3 vegetation and long-term southern African rainfall is found on a scale larger than previously observed. A modest relationship is found between stable carbon (C) isotopic signatures of C3 vegetation and rainfall across the region (r2=0.20, P<0.01). No such relationship is found between stable C and N isotopic signatures of C4 vegetation and rainfall. The explanation of the relationship between 15N in C3 vegetation and the mean annual rainfall presented here is that nutrient availability varies inversely with water availability. This suggests that water-limited systems in southern Africa are more open in terms of nutrient cycling and therefore the resulting natural abundance of foliar 15N in these systems is enriched. The use of this relationship may be of value to those researchers modeling both the dynamics of vegetation and biogeochemistry across this region. The use of the isotopic enrichment in C3 vegetation as a function of rainfall may provide an insight into nutrient cycling across the semi-arid and arid regions of southern Africa. This finding has implications for the study of global change, especially as it relates to vegetation responses to changing regional rainfall regimes over time.

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