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Resolving Estuarine Nitrogen Use by Phytoplankton Communities Using a Whole Ecosystem Tracer Approach

Abstract

The use of nutrients by diverse phytoplankton communities in estuarine systems, and their response to changes in physical and biogeochemical processes in these natural systems, is a significant ongoing area of research. We used a whole ecosystem 15NO3 tracer experiment to determine the uptake of different nitrogen (N) forms in phytoplankton functional groups over a mid- to neap tidal cycle in a salt marsh creek in Plum Island Estuary, Massachusetts, USA. We quantified the biomass and δ15N for three groups corresponding to micro- (20–200 μm; microP), nano- (3–20 μm; nanoP), and picophytoplankton (< 3 μm; picoP). All three size classes showed distinct use of recycled N sources throughout the 11-day sampling period and minimal direct assimilation of the 15NO3 tracer. MicroP consistently used high amounts of creek-derived 15NH4+, even with a shift at neap tide from diatom- to dinoflagellate-dominated communities (including members of the harmful genus Alexandrium). NanoP use of recycled 15NH4+ increased over the mid-neap tidal cycle, while picoP use decreased. Both biomass and NH4+ use (as highest δ15N values) of all size groups were maximized during neap tide. This study demonstrates partitioning of recycled N use among size-based phytoplankton groups in the estuary, with distinct effects of tidal cycle on the nutrient uptake of each group, and with important implications for the roles of diverse phytoplankton communities in estuarine nutrient cycling.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the research assistants who provided field and laboratory support, M. Otter for isotopic analysis, and two anonymous reviewers whose comments greatly improved the quality of the manuscript.

Funding

BAS and JWB received funding for this research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NA16NOS0120017) and Louisiana Sea Grant College Program (NA14OAR4170099). Funding for this study, the Plum Island Ecosystems LTER, and the TIDE project was also provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF-OCE 1238212, NSF-DEB 1354494, NSF-OCE 1233678).

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Correspondence to Beth A. Stauffer.

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Communicated by Hans W. Paerl

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Babitch, J.W., Nelson, J.A., Deegan, L.A. et al. Resolving Estuarine Nitrogen Use by Phytoplankton Communities Using a Whole Ecosystem Tracer Approach. Estuaries and Coasts 44, 1883–1898 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-021-00905-6

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Keywords

  • Phytoplankton
  • Functional groups
  • Tidal forcing
  • 15N
  • Stable isotopes