, Volume 113, Issue 1, pp 643-655

First online:

Biogeochemical transformation of a nutrient subsidy: salmon, streams, and nitrification

  • Peter S. LeviAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Notre DameDepartment of Bioscience, Aarhus University Email author 
  • , Jennifer L. TankAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame
  • , Scott D. TiegsAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Notre DameDepartment of Biological Sciences, Oakland University
  • , Dominic T. ChalonerAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame
  • , Gary A. LambertiAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame

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Migratory animals can alter ecosystem function via the provision of nutrient subsidies. These subsidies are heterogeneous in space and time, which may create hot spots or hot moments in biogeochemical transformations, in turn altering the ecosystem effect of the subsidy by changing the form of the nutrients. Annual migrations of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) transport nutrients from the marine environment to their natal freshwater ecosystems. Salmon subsidies provide high quality nutrients (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon) that may also be large in quantity where salmon migrations are near historic levels. We hypothesized that the nutrient subsidy provided via the excretion of ammonium (NH4 +) by live salmon would stimulate microbially mediated nitrification rates in stream sediments and increase streamwater nitrate (NO3 ) concentrations. We quantified sediment nitrification in seven streams in Southeast Alaska before and during the salmon run in 2007 and 2008. Nitrification rates increased 3-fold from before to during the salmon run (mean ± SE = 0.07 ± 0.01 to 0.24 ± 0.02 mgN gAFDM−1 d−1, respectively). The variation in nitrification was explained by both streamwater and exchangeable NH4 + concentrations (R 2 = 0.50 and 0.71, respectively), which were low before salmon and increased relative to the size of the salmon run. To experimentally test the effect of salmon subsidies on nitrification rates, we staked senesced salmon carcasses on stream sediments for 3 weeks during the salmon run and then measured nitrification rates directly under the carcasses. Sediment nitrification was 2–5 times higher under the carcasses compared to nearby sediments without the direct carcass influence. Our results confirm that biogeochemical transformations alter the form of salmon-derived nitrogen, representing an overlooked aspect in the dynamics of this subsidy. Therefore, animal-derived nutrient subsidies are not passively retained or exported in recipient ecosystems, but also transformed, thereby influencing the form and incorporation of these nutrient subsidies.


Nutrient subsidy Nitrogen cycle Pacific salmon Ammonium Nitrate Southeast Alaska