Role of nutrient cycling and herbivory in regulating periphyton communities in laboratory streams

  • Mulholland P
  • Steinman A
  • Palumbo A
 et al. 
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In this study we examined the role of nutrient cycling and herbivory in regulating stream periphyton communities. Population, community, and ecosystem-level properties were studied in laboratory stream channels that had nutrient inputs reduced compared to channels where ambient nutrient levels were maintained. We reduced nutrient inputs in four of eight channels by recirculating 90% of the flow, whereas the other four channels received once-through flow of spring water. We examined the interaction between herbivory and nutrients by varying the number of snails (Elimia clavaeformis) among streams with different nutrient input (circulation) regimes. Reduction in nutrient input via recirculation resulted in lower concentrations of nutrients in the water but did not result in significant differences in biomass, carbon fixation, or algal taxonomic composition. However, herbivory had large effects on these characteristics by reducing biomass and areal rates of carbon fixation and simplifying periphyton taxonomy and physiognomy. Lower rates of nutrient input significantly affected characteristics associated with nutrient cycling. Streams with reduced nutrient inputs had lower periphyton nutrient contents, higher ratios of total: net uptake of P from water, and higher rates of phosphatase activity than streams with ambient nutrient inputs. However, the effects of reduced nutrient input on cycling characteristics were reduced or eliminated by intense herbivory. Our results indicate that nutrient cycling can increase in response to reductions in nutrient input once sufficient biomass or detritus accumulates to facilitate cycling, thereby allowing biomass accrual and carbon fixation rates to be maintained at levels achieved at higher nutrient inputs. In streams with low nutrient input, cycling can meet a large fraction of the nutrient demand of the periphyton. Because our experimental design involved a reduction from ambient nutrient levels rather than the usual enrichment tecnhiques (e.g., additions to water, nutrient-diffusing substrates) in aquatic ecosystems, we have been able to observe how biological structure and processes are influenced by external nutrient inputs at the low natural levels of most undisturbed streams.

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