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Aquatic Sciences

, 82:11 | Cite as

The life aquatic in high relief: shifts in the physical and biological characteristics of alpine lakes along an elevation gradient in the Rocky Mountains, USA

  • Kelly A. LoriaEmail author
  • Diane McKnight
  • Dillon M. Ragar
  • Pieter T. J. Johnson
Research Article

Abstract

Rapidly occurring environmental changes in alpine lakes highlight the importance of better understanding the ecological structure and function associated with these systems. Previous research has identified how the physical characteristics of lakes change as a function of landscape position, but comparatively little is known about shifts in the biotic community across mountain regions. In 2016, we sampled 19 lakes across an elevation gradient (2480–3550 m a.s.l.) within the Rocky Mountains, USA, to evaluate how both the abiotic characteristics of lakes and their planktonic biological communities covaried with elevation. Based on generalized linear mixed models (GLMMs), increases in elevation were associated with decreases in most nutrient concentrations (with the exception of nitrate), dissolved organic carbon, water temperature and lake stratification. Conversely, elevation increases were positively related to nitrate concentrations and water clarity. Extending this analysis to the biological community, we found that higher-elevation lakes exhibited lower phytoplankton and zooplankton densities, whereas elevation associated positively with average zooplankton size. Our data are consistent with the hypothesis that the alpine environment acts as a strong niche filter, limiting the quantity and diversity of taxa to groups capable of tolerating the short growing season, high flushing rate, strong variation in interannual precipitation, intense ultraviolet radiation exposure, and lower resource availability associated with such habitats.

Keywords

Landscape limnology Mountain lake Elevation gradient Freshwater ecology Zooplankton Phytoplankton 

Notes

Acknowledgements

We thank the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research program for supporting this research; the various field team members Kathi Hell-Jaros, Josh Darling, Samuel Fonteneli, Dylan Rose, Henry Brandes and Holly Miller who helped collect and process the survey data; Johnson Laboratory, notably Dana Calhoun, for their comments on the manuscript; Travis McDevitt-Galles and Wynne Moss for their insights on data analysis; William Bowman, Jen Morse, and Katherine Suding for their logistical support of this project; and The City of Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forest and Boulder County Open Space for allowing us to collect data in their treasured aquatic environments. For comments helpful in revising the manuscript, we thank Sudeep Chandra, Steve Sadro, Stuart Findlay, and one anonymous reviewer. This work was supported through the National Science Foundation (DEB-1637686 and DEB-1754171) as well as a fellowship from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Supplementary material

27_2019_684_MOESM1_ESM.docx (126 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 125 kb)

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research Program, Institute of Arctic and Alpine ResearchUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, Environmental Studies, Hydrological Sciences, Institute of Arctic and Alpine ResearchUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  3. 3.Boulder Creek Critical Zone Observatory, Institute of Arctic and Alpine ResearchUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  4. 4.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

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