Effects of nitrogen availability and form on phytoplankton growth in a eutrophied estuary (Neuse River Estuary, NC, USA)

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Abstract

Nitrogen availability and form are important controls on estuarine phytoplankton growth. This study experimentally determined the influence of urea and nitrate additions on phytoplankton growth throughout the growing season (March 2012, June 2011, August 2011) in a temperate, eutrophied estuary (Neuse River Estuary, North Carolina, USA). Photopigments (chlorophyll a and diagnostic photopigments: peridinin, fucoxanthin, alloxanthin, zeaxanthin, chlorophyll b) and microscopy-based cell counts were used as indicators of phytoplankton growth. In March, the phytoplankton community was dominated by Gyrodinium instriatum and only fucoxanthin-based growth rates were stimulated by nitrogen addition. The limited response to nitrogen suggests other factors may control phytoplankton growth and community composition in early spring. In June, inorganic nitrogen concentrations were low and stimulatory effects of both nitrogen forms were observed for chlorophyll a- and diagnostic photopigment-based growth rates. In contrast, cell counts showed that only cryptophyte and dinoflagellate (Heterocapsa rotundata) growth were stimulated. Responses of other photopigments may have been due to an increase in pigment per cell or growth of plankton too small to be counted with the microscopic methods used. Despite high nitrate concentrations in August, growth rates were elevated in response to urea and/or nitrate addition for all photopigments except peridinin. However, this response was not observed in cell counts, again suggesting that pigment-based growth responses may not always be indicative of a true community and/or taxa-specific growth response. This highlights the need to employ targeted microscopy-based cell enumeration concurrent with pigment-based technology to facilitate a more complete understanding of phytoplankton dynamics in estuarine systems. These results are consistent with previous studies showing the seasonal importance of nitrogen availability in estuaries, and also reflect taxa-specific responses nitrogen availability. Finally, this study demonstrates that under nitrogen-limiting conditions, the phytoplankton community and its various taxa are capable of using both urea and nitrate to support growth.

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Cira, E. K., Paerla, H. W., & Wetza, M. S. (2016). Effects of nitrogen availability and form on phytoplankton growth in a eutrophied estuary (Neuse River Estuary, NC, USA). PLoS ONE, 11(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0160663

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