Summer rain pulse size and rainwater uptake by three dominant desert plants in a desertified grassland ecosystem in northwestern China

Xiaoli Cheng, Shuqing An, Bo Li, Jiquan Chen, Guanghui Lin, Yuhong Liu, Yiqi Luo, Shirong Liu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

135 Scopus citations


To examine the different effects of rain pulse size on uptake of summer rains by three dominant desert plants in field conditions of desertified grasslands on the Ordos Plateau of northwestern China, we studied relationships between precipitation event size and rainwater uptake using stable isotopes of hydrogen in plant and soil water. Four natural precipitation events that represented precipitation sizes of 5.3, 8.3, 13.3, and 65.3 mm in the summer were chosen for the experiment. The perennial grass Stipa bungeana, the shrub Artemisia ordosia, and the herb Cynanchum komarovii - the dominant species in the communities - were compared for their use of summer rains with different pulse sizes based on the changes in the hydrogen isotope ratios (δD) of their stem water 7 days following each natural rain event. We found that S. bungeana and C. komarovii took advantage of shallow water sources derived from small (<10 mm) rain events, A. ordosia took advantage of deeper soil water recharged by large (>65 mm) rain events, and C. komarovii relied primarily on rain events of intermediate (10-20 mm) size. These different responses to rain pulses among species suggested that more frequent small rain events will promote the dominance of S. bungeana and C. komarovii, medium-sized events will facilitate development of C. komarovii, and large events will advance A. ordosia in this community. The rainwater utilization patterns of the three species would allow the coexistence of S. bungeana and A. ordosia or the coexistence of A. ordosia and C. komorovii in various successional serals following the disturbances. With an increase in variability of summer rain pulse size as predicted by climate change models, we expect that the structure of this community will undergo significant change in the future. Altered precipitation regimes, especially in combination with anthropogenic-related disturbances such as over-grazing, are likely to accelerate rates of degradation in northwestern China.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalPlant Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Desert plant
  • Desertified grasslands
  • Hydrogen isotopic composition
  • Rain pulse size
  • Summer precipitation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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