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Macrophyte Complexity Controls Nutrient Uptake in Lowland Streams

Abstract

Macrophytes act as ecosystem engineers in lowland stream ecosystems, enhancing habitat complexity and physical structure. Studies have demonstrated that macrophyte abundance and growth form can dictate the degree to which physical and biological stream characteristics are altered. However, few studies have investigated the influence of macrophytes and their species-specific variation in morphological complexity on functional processes, such as nutrient uptake. We injected 15N-labeled ammonium (15N-NH4 +) into four macrophyte-rich lowland streams in Denmark to quantify the uptake of NH4 + by macrophytes, epiphytic biofilms, benthic biofilms, and suspended particulate organic matter in the water column. Overall, macrophytes and their epiphytic biofilms accounted for 71–98% of the reach-weighted uptake across the study streams. While macrophytes had the highest rates of NH4 + uptake among the compartments we measured, the epiphytic biofilms had the highest uptake efficiency, ranging from 0.06 to 0.6 mg N mg N −1biomass d−1. Among all compartments, the uptake efficiency was inversely related to the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Macrophyte complexity, expressed as leaf perimeter-to-area ratio (P:A), varied among the five species found in the study streams. The uptake rates by macrophyte species with high leaf P:A were, on average, an order of magnitude higher than the rates for species with simple leaf morphology (430 vs. 49 mg N m−2 d−1). In summary, our results indicate that macrophytes regulate stream function both via direct uptake of NH4 + from the water column and by providing a substrate for epiphytic biofilms. Furthermore, the effect of leaf architecture on nutrient uptake rates provides evidence that physical complexity can enhance ecosystem function.

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Acknowledgments

Our research was possible because of the technical and field support provided by Camilla Håkansson, Lone Ottosen, Birgitte Tagesen, and Ole Zahrtmann. We would also like to thank Walter Dodds and Jennifer Tank for their valuable insight, Ali Mikulyuk for comments on an earlier version of this manuscript, and Jesse Nippert and Troy Ocheltree at Kansas State University for processing our stable isotope samples. We are grateful to the Danish Council for Independent Research and the EU MARS Project (Contract #60337) for providing funding to support our research and the kind land owners who allowed us to access our field sites.

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Correspondence to Peter S. Levi.

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PSL helped design the study, performed the research, analyzed the data, and wrote the paper; TR conceived of and helped design the study, helped perform the research, and assisted in writing the paper; ABA helped perform the research and provided extensive revisions on the manuscript; MP helped perform the research and provided extensive revisions on the manuscript; KM helped perform the research and provided revisions to the paper; CB helped perform the research, conducted the GIS analysis, and provided revisions to the paper; ABP conceived of and helped design the study and assisted in writing the paper.

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Levi, P.S., Riis, T., Alnøe, A.B. et al. Macrophyte Complexity Controls Nutrient Uptake in Lowland Streams. Ecosystems 18, 914–931 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-015-9872-y

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-015-9872-y

Keywords

  • submerged aquatic vegetation
  • epiphyton
  • 15N-NH4 +
  • stable isotope
  • nitrogen
  • ecosystem function
  • habitat complexity
  • heterogeneity