Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) are widespread and abundant in major freshwater ecosystems in North America, even though the phytoplankton food resources in some of these systems seem to be too low to sustain them. Because phytoplankton biomass is greatly depleted in ecosystems with large D. polymorpha populations and bacteria do not seem to be an important food source for this species, exploitation of alternative carbon sources may explain the unexpected success of D. polymorpha in such environments. Here we examine the possibility that absorption of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from water could provide a nutritional supplement to zebra mussels. We find that mussels absorb 14C-labelled DOC produced by cultured diatoms with an efficiency of 0.23%; this indicates that DOC in natural waters could contribute up to 50% of the carbon demand of zebra mussels. We also find that zebra mussels absorb some dissolved metals that have been complexed by the DOM; although absorption of dissolved selenium was unaffected by DOC, absorption of dissolved cadmium, silver and mercury by the mussels increased 32-, 8.7- and 3.6-fold, respectively, in the presence of high-molecular-weight DOC.
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