Controls of benthic nitrogen fixation and primary production from nutrient enrichment of oligotrophic, Arctic lakes

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Gettel, Gretchen M.
Giblin, Anne E.
Howarth, Robert W.
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Nitrogen fixation
Primary production
We examined controls of benthic dinitrogen (N2) fixation and primary production in oligotrophic lakes in Arctic Alaska, Toolik Field Station (Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research Site). Primary production in many oligotrophic lakes is limited by nitrogen (N), and benthic processes are important for whole-lake function. Oligotrophic lakes are increasingly susceptible to low-level, non-point source nutrient inputs, yet the effects on benthic processes are not well understood. This study examines the results from a whole-lake fertilization experiment in which N and P were added at a relatively low level (4 times natural loading) in Redfield ratio to a shallow (3 m) and a deep (20 m) oligotrophic lake. The two lakes showed similar responses to fertilization: benthic primary production and respiration (each 50–150 mg C m−2 day−1) remained the same, and benthic N2 fixation declined by a factor of three- to fourfold by the second year of treatment (from ~0.35 to 0.1 mg N m−2 day−1). This showed that the response of benthic N2 fixation was de-coupled from the nutrient limitation status of benthic primary producers and raised questions about the mechanisms, which were examined in separate laboratory experiments. Bioassay experiments in intact cores also showed no response of benthic primary production to added N and P, but contrasted with the whole-lake experiment in that N2 fixation did not respond to added N, either alone or in conjunction with P. This inconsistency was likely a result of nitrogenase activity of existing N2 fixers during the relative short duration (9 days) of the bioassay experiment. N2 fixation showed a positive saturating response when light was increased in the laboratory, but was not statistically related to ambient light level in the field, leading us to conclude that light limitation of the benthos from increasing water-column production was not important. Thus, increased N availability in the sediments through direct uptake likely caused a reduction in N2 fixation. These results show the capacity of the benthos in oligotrophic systems to buffer the whole-system response to nutrient addition by the apparent ability for significant nutrient uptake and the rapid decline in N2 fixation in response to added nutrients. Reduced benthic N2 fixation may be an early indicator of a eutrophication response of lakes which precedes the transition from benthic to water-column-dominated systems.
© The Author(s), 2013. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. The definitive version was published in Ecosystems 16 (2013): 1550-1564, doi:10.1007/s10021-013-9701-0.
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Ecosystems 16 (2013): 1550-1564
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