Variable nutrient stoichiometry (carbon:nitrogen:phosphorus) across trophic levels determines community and ecosystem properties in an oligotrophic mangrove system

Abstract

Our study investigated the carbon:nitrogen:phosphorus (C:N:P) stoichiometry of mangrove island of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (Twin Cays, Belize). The C:N:P of abiotic and biotic components of this oligotrophic ecosystem was measured and served to build networks of nutrient flows for three distinct mangrove forest zones (tall seaward fringing forest, inland dwarf forests and a transitional zone). Between forest zones, the stoichiometry of primary producers, heterotrophs and abiotic components did not change significantly, but there was a significant difference in C:N:P, and C, N, and P biomass, between the functional groups mangrove trees, other primary producers, heterotrophs, and abiotic components. C:N:P decreased with increasing trophic level. Nutrient recycling in the food webs was highest for P, and high transfer efficiencies between trophic levels of P and N also indicated an overall shortage of these nutrients when compared to C. Heterotrophs were sometimes, but not always, limited by the same nutrient as the primary producers. Mangrove trees and the primary tree consumers were P limited, whereas the invertebrates consuming leaf litter and detritus were N limited. Most compartments were limited by P or N (not by C), and the relative depletion rate of food sources was fastest for P. P transfers thus constituted a bottleneck of nutrient transfer on Twin Cays. This is the first comprehensive ecosystem study of nutrient transfers in a mangrove ecosystem, illustrating some mechanisms (e.g. recycling rates, transfer efficiencies) which oligotrophic systems use in order to build up biomass and food webs spanning various trophic levels.

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Acknowledgments

Funding for this study was provided by a US-National Science Foundation Biocomplexity grant (DEB-998 1483). Fieldwork was conducted on the Carrie Bow Cay field station of the Smithsonian Institute. M. Carpenter and A. Chamberlain, Q. Roberts, V. Brenneis, B. Smallwood and D. Thornton are gratefully acknowledged for assistance in the field. Q. Roberts, V. Brenneis and P. Zelanko helped with C and N elemental analysis at the Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie institution of Washington. M. F. and M. J. W. gratefully acknowledge support from the Smithsonian Institution’s Loeb Fellowship and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, M. E. J. M. gratefully acknowledges the laboratory of D. Capone for material and instrumental support. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US government.

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Correspondence to U. M. Scharler.

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Communicated by Michael Madritch.

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Scharler, U.M., Ulanowicz, R.E., Fogel, M.L. et al. Variable nutrient stoichiometry (carbon:nitrogen:phosphorus) across trophic levels determines community and ecosystem properties in an oligotrophic mangrove system. Oecologia 179, 863–876 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-015-3379-2

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Keywords

  • Oligotrophic environment
  • Recycling
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Mangrove food web
  • Transfer efficiency