Articles | Volume 6, issue 5
11 May 2009
 | 11 May 2009

Large regional-scale variation in C3/C4 distribution pattern of Inner Mongolia steppe is revealed by grazer wool carbon isotope composition

K. Auerswald, M. H. O. M. Wittmer, T. T. Männel, Y. F. Bai, R. Schäufele, and H. Schnyder

Abstract. This work explored the spatial variation of C3/C4 distribution in the Inner Mongolia, P. R. China, steppe by geostatistical analysis of carbon isotope data of vegetation and sheep wool. Standing community biomass (n=118) and sheep wool (n=146) were sampled in a ~0.2 Mio km2 area. Samples from ten consecutive years (1998–2007) were obtained. Community biomass samples represented the carbon isotopic composition of standing vegetation on about 1000 m2 ("community-scale"), whereas the spatio-temporal scale of wool reflected the isotope composition of the entire area grazed by the herd during a 1-yr period (~5–10 km2, "farm-scale"). Pair wise sampling of wool and vegetation revealed a 13C-enrichment of 2.7±0.7‰ (95% confidence interval) in wool relative to vegetation, but this shift exhibited no apparent relationships with environmental parameters or stocking rate. The proportion of C4 plants in above-ground biomass (PC4, %) was estimated with a two-member mixing model of 13C discrimination by C3 and C4 vegetation (13Δ3 and 13Δ4, respectively), in accounting for the effects of changing 13C in atmospheric CO2 on sample isotope composition, and of altitude and aridity on 13Δ3. PC4 averaged 19%, but the variation was enormous: full-scale (0% to 100%) at community-scale, and 0% to 85% at farm-scale. The farm-scale variation of PC4 exhibited a clear regional pattern over a range of ~250 km. Importantly PC4 was significantly higher above the 22°C isotherm of the warmest month, which was obtained from annual high-resolution maps and averaged over the different sampling years. This is consistent with predictions from C3/C4 crossover temperature of quantum yield or light use efficiency in C3 and C4 plants. Still, temperature gradients accounted for only 10% of the farm-scale variation of PC4, indicating that additional factors control PC4 on this scale.

Final-revised paper