© 2018, Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature. Background and aims: The nitrogen isotope composition (δ15N) of plants in arid and semiarid grasslands is affected by environmental factors, especially water availability. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the response of δ15N to water availability differs between C3 and C4 photosynthetic pathways. Methods: We investigated plant δ15N of coexisting C3 and C4 species as a function of aridity along a 3200 km aridity gradient across the arid and semi-arid grasslands of northern China. Results: Aridity was positively correlated with plant δ15N values in both C3 and C4 plants and also in the entire plant community, whereas soil bulk δ15N values increased first and then decreased along the aridity gradient. The N uptake by C4 plants appeared to be more affected by competition pressure of neighboring plants and soil microbes than for C3 plants along the transect. Conclusions: The decoupled relationship between plant and soil δ15N values indicated that variations in vegetation and soil δ15N values were driven by differential biogeochemical processes, while different soil N sources were used for plant growth along the climatic gradient. The advantage of C3 plants in the use of N may counteract the competitive advantage that C4 plants have over C3 plants due to their higher water use efficiency under drier conditions. These findings can help understand why C4 plants do not completely replace C3 plants in drier environments despite their higher water use efficiency.
- Grassland transect
- Photosynthetic pathway