Although it is well documented that access to groundwater can help plants survive drought in arid and semiarid areas, there have been few studies in mesic environments that have evaluated variation of vegetation characteristics across a naturally occurring gradient in depth-to-groundwater (DGW). The aim of this study was to determine whether differences in groundwater depth influence structural attributes and productivity of remnant woodlands in south-eastern Australia. The study area was located in the Kangaloon bore-field area of New South Wales, where DGW varies from 2.4m to 37.5m and rainfall is plentiful. We examined structural (leaf-area index, basal area, stem density, tree height, Huber value (HV) and aboveground biomass) and functional (aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP)) attributes of seven woodland sites differing in DGW. We also used ∂13C analysis of sapwood across six sites, along with observed non-linear changes in structural attributes, to infer groundwater use by trees. Significant differences in structural attributes and ANPP were observed across sites. The three shallowest sites with 2.4m, 4.3m and 5.5m DWG had significantly larger aboveground biomass and ANPP than did the four deepest sites (DGW ≥9.8m). Across all attributes (except HV in the summer, where the mean values were significantly larger at sites where DGW was 5.5m or less and across the four deeper sites (DGW ≥9.8m), there were no differences in these three structural traits, nor in ANPP. Despite finding no significant differences in HV across sites in the summer, in winter, the two deepest sites had a significantly larger HV than did the two shallowest sites. Significant increases in ∂13C of sapwood occurred across five of the six sites, consistent with increasing water-use efficiency as DGW increased, reflecting the declining availability of groundwater with increasing DGW. This study has demonstrated that even in a mesic environment, putative access to groundwater can have important impacts on structural and functional traits of trees and, consequently, on woodland productivity.
- aboveground biomass (AGB)
- aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP)
- leaf-area index