Linking marine resources to ecotonal shifts of water uptake by terrestrial dune vegetation

Tara L. Greaver, Leonel L.Da S. Sternberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


As evidence mounts that sea levels are rising, it becomes increasingly important to understand the role of ocean water within terrestrial ecosystem dynamics. Coastal sand dunes are ecosystems that occur on the interface of land and sea. They are classic ecotones characterized by zonal distribution of vegetation in response to strong gradients of environmental factors from the ocean to the inland. Despite the proximity of the dune ecosystem to the ocean, it is generally assumed that all vegetation utilizes only freshwater and that water sources do not change across the ecotone. Evidence of ocean water uptake by vegetation would redefine the traditional interpretation of plant-water relations in the dune ecosystem and offer new ideas for assessing maritime influences on function and spatial distribution of plants across the dune. The purpose of this study was to identify sources of water (ocean, ground, and rain) taken up by vegetation using isotopic analysis of stem water and to evaluate water uptake patterns at the community level based on the distribution and assemblage of species. Three coastal dune systems located in southern Florida, USA, and the Bahamian bank/platform system were investigated. Plant distributions across the dune were zonal for 61-94% of the 18 most abundant species at each site. Species with their highest frequency on the fore dune (nearest the ocean) indicate ocean water uptake as evidenced by δ18O values of stem water. In contrast, species most frequent in the back dune show no evidence of ocean water uptake. Analysis of species not grouped by frequency, but instead sampled along a transect from the ocean toward the inland, indicates that individuals from the vegetation assemblage closest to the ocean had a mixed water-harvesting strategy characterized by plants that may utilize ocean, ground-, and/or rainwater. In contrast, the inland vegetation relies mostly on rainwater. Our results show evidence supporting ocean water use by dune vegetation and demonstrate an exciting relationship between seawater and ecotonal shifts in plant function of a terrestrial ecosystem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2389-2396
Number of pages8
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 18 2006


  • Caribbean
  • Coastal sand dunes
  • Eco-physiology
  • Island ecology
  • Ocean water
  • Oxygen isotopes
  • Plant distribution
  • Water sources

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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