Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Assessment of vegetation change and landscape variability by using stable carbon isotopes of soil organic matter

Evelyn G. Krull A B D and Steven S. Bray B C
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A CSIRO Land and Water, PMB 2, Glen Osmond, SA 5064, Australia.

B CRC for Greenhouse Accounting, PO Box 475, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

C Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, PO Box 6014, Rockhampton MC, Qld 4702, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email: Evelyn.Krull@csiro.au

Australian Journal of Botany 53(7) 651-661 https://doi.org/10.1071/BT04124
Submitted: 9 December 2004  Accepted: 17 January 2005   Published: 29 November 2005

Abstract

Stable carbon isotopic (δ13C) analyses of soil organic matter (SOM) have been used in the past to characterise C3–C4 vegetation changes. However, the temporal and spatial resolution of these isotopic data are not well established. Here, we present data from δ13C analyses of whole and size-separated SOM, which are discussed in conjunction with organic (total organic carbon (TOC) content) and inorganic (%clay) soil data. These data are put into context with the current vegetation state (assessed from tree size-class distribution) and the 50-year vegetation history (assessed from aerial photographs). By linking below- and above-ground datasets, we show that δ13C analyses of SOM can accurately record vegetation-change histories over short- (10 and 50 years) and longer-term (hundreds of years) time scales. Our data also show that spatial variability was relatively small for the clay TOC content but was much larger for δ13C data, indicating that the number of soil cores required for statistical significance is highly dependent on the kind of measurements intended. Finally, interpretation of δ13C data from SOM to assess the history of C3–C4 vegetation change is complicated by the inherent 13C-enrichment of SOM, owing to decomposition processes, which occurs regardless of vegetation change. We suggest a method for distinguishing 13C-enrichment of SOM that is due to soil-inherent (decomposition-related) processes from 13C-enrichment that is due to increased inputs of C4 organic matter.


Acknowledgments

We thank Ian Webb for providing the soil description, Lex Cogle, Mark Keating and Dale Heiner for soil sampling, the CRC for Greenhouse Accounting for financial assistance, Eugene and Heather Matthews for site access and oral site history and Chamendra Hewavisenthi for aerial photo rectification. Critical reviews by Jan Skjemstad, Jonathan Wynn and two anonymous reviewers helped to improve an earlier version of the manuscript.


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