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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Plant Sci. | doi: 10.3389/fpls.2019.01411

Partitioning of water between differently sized shrubs and potential groundwater recharge in a semiarid savanna in Namibia

 Katja Geißler1*,  Jessica Heblack1, Shoopala Uugulu2,  Heike Wanke3 and Niels Blaum1
  • 1Institute of Biochemistry and Biology, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, University of Potsdam, Germany
  • 2University of Namibia, Namibia
  • 3University of the West of England, United Kingdom

Many semiarid regions around the world are presently experiencing significant changes in both climatic conditions and vegetation. This includes a disturbed coexistence between grasses and bushes also known as bush encroachment, and altered precipitation patterns with larger rain events. Fewer, more intense precipitation events might promote groundwater recharge, but depending on the structure of the vegetation also encourage further woody encroachment.
In this study, we investigated how patterns and sources of water uptake of Acacia mellifera (blackthorn), an important encroaching woody plant in southern African savannas, are associated with the intensity of rain events and the size of individual shrubs. The study was conducted at a commercial cattle farm in the semiarid Kalahari in Namibia (MAP 250 mm/a). We used soil moisture dynamics in different depths and natural stable isotopes as markers of water sources. Xylem water of fifteen differently sized individuals during eight rain events was extracted using a Scholander pressure bomb.
Results suggest the main rooting activity zone of A. mellifera in 50 and 75 cm soil depth but a reasonable water uptake from 10 and 25 cm. Any apparent uptake pattern seems to be driven by water availability, not time in the season. Bushes prefer the deeper soil layers after heavier rain events, indicating some evidence for the classical Walter’s two-layer hypothesis. However, rain events up to a threshold of 6 mm/day cause shallower depths of use and suggest several phases of intense competition with perennial grasses. The temporal uptake pattern does not depend on shrub size, suggesting a fast upwards water flow inside. δ2H and δ18O values in xylem water indicate that smaller shrubs rely more on deeper soil water than larger shrubs. It supports the hypothesis that in environments where soil moisture is highly variable in the upper soil layers, the early investment in a deep tap-root to exploit deeper, more reliable water sources could reduce the probability of mortality during the establishment phase. Nevertheless, independent of size and time in the season, bushes do not compete with potential groundwater recharge. In a savanna encroached by A. mellifera, groundwater will most likely be affected indirectly

Keywords: Bush encroachment, Groundwater recharge, Rooting depth, savannas, Stable isotopes, shrub size, Acacia mellifera, rain event depth

Received: 26 Mar 2019; Accepted: 11 Oct 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Geißler, Heblack, Uugulu, Wanke and Blaum. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Katja Geißler, Institute of Biochemistry and Biology, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Brandenburg, Germany, kgeissle@uni-potsdam.de