Hydrological niches in terrestrial plant communities: A review

Jonathan Silvertown, Yoseph N. Araya, David Gowing

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Despite the fundamental significance of water to plants and the persisting question of how competing species coexist, this is the first review of hydrological niches. We define hydrological niche segregation (HNS) as: (i) partitioning of space on fine-scale soil-moisture gradients, (ii) partitioning of water as a resource and/or (iii) partitioning of recruitment opportunities among years caused by species specializing on particular patterns of temporal variance of water supply (the storage effect).
We propose that there are three types of constraint that lead to the trade-offs that underlie HNS. (i) An edaphic constraint creates a trade-off between the supply to roots of O2 on the one hand vs. water and nutrients on the other. (ii) A biophysical constraint governs gas exchange by leaves, leading to a trade-off between CO2 acquisition vs. water loss. (iii) A structural constraint arising from the physics of water-conducting tissues leads to a safety vs. efficiency trade-off.

Significant HNS was found in 43 of 48 field studies across vegetation types ranging from arid to wet, though its role in coexistence remains to be proven in most cases. Temporal partitioning promotes coexistence through the storage effect in arid plant communities, but has yet to be shown elsewhere. In only a few cases is it possible to unequivocally link HNS to a particular trade-off.

Synthesis. The field and experimental evidence make it clear that HNS is widespread, though it is less clear what its precise mechanisms or consequences are. HNS mechanisms should be revealed by further study of the constraints and trade-offs that govern how plants obtain and use water, and HNS can be mechanistically linked to its consequences with appropriate community models. In a changing climate, such an integrated programme would pay dividends for global change research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93–108
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date10 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jan 2015

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • coexistence
  • eco-hydrology
  • global change
  • hydrological niche
  • plant community ecology
  • plant population and community dynamics
  • stable isotopes


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