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Phosphorus scarcity and desiccation stress increase the occurrence of dominant taxa in wetland benthic primary producer communities

Abstract

A few dominant species of plants often disproportionately contribute to primary production; however, dominance has an underappreciated influence on ecosystem processes and functioning. Cascading impacts of dominant species have been documented in ecosystems undergoing eutrophication, but competitive exclusion may also influence dominance structures when limiting nutrients become scarce (i.e., in lakes experiencing oligotrophication) or with exposure to stressors to which few species are adapted (i.e., desiccation stress in wetlands). To predict impacts of widespread changes in nutrients and hydrology on dominance structures in aquatic ecosystems, we need quantitative assessments of dominance of important primary producers, including algae and cyanobacteria, which can regulate other structural and functional properties of ecosystems. We used a highly spatiotemporally resolved (7 years, 165 sites) dataset from the abundant microbial mats of the Florida Everglades to assess how and why the degree of dominance and the identity of dominant taxa vary across nutrient and desiccation gradients. Using algal counts and the dimensions of algal units (cells, coenobia, colonies, and filaments), we measured dominance as relative biovolume. As hypothesized, the relative biovolume of dominant taxa increased and the number of taxa comprising 95% of the biovolume decreased with lower concentrations of limiting nutrient in the mats (phosphorus; P) and higher desiccation stress. Algal taxa that regulate the structural integrity of mats, such as the filamentous, calcium carbonate precipitating cyanobacterium Scytonema sp., strongly influenced these patterns through their tolerance of P scarcity and desiccation. Our indicators and approach can be used to test whether dominance of microscopic primary producers, and other organisms, increases with nutrient scarcity and desiccation stress in other aquatic ecosystems.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank the South Florida Water Management District and the United States Army Corps of Engineers for funding fieldwork and laboratory analyses, and Florida International University staff for conducting fieldwork and microscope analyses. Joel Trexler led the CERP-MAP sampling program; Viviana Mazzei, John Kominoski, Anson Mackay, Eric Sokol, Mike Rugge, and two anonymous reviewers provided useful comments and advice. This research was developed in collaboration with the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research program under Cooperative Agreements #DEB-1237517, #DBI-0620409, and #DEB-9910514. This is contribution number 843 from the Southeast Environmental Research Center in the Institute of Water & Environment at Florida International University.

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Marazzi, L., Gaiser, E.E. & Tobias, F.A.C. Phosphorus scarcity and desiccation stress increase the occurrence of dominant taxa in wetland benthic primary producer communities. Aquat Ecol 51, 571–589 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10452-017-9637-0

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Keywords

  • Dominance
  • Phosphorus scarcity
  • Desiccation stress
  • Algae
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Benthic systems
  • Wetlands