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Quantifying Whole-Reach Denitrification in Arizona Streams

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Elevated nitrate (NO3-) concentration in streams and rivers has contributed to environmental problems such as downstream eutrophication and loss of biodiversity. Sycamore Creek in Arizona is nitrogen limited, but previous studies have demonstrated high potential for denitrification, a microbial process

Elevated nitrate (NO3-) concentration in streams and rivers has contributed to environmental problems such as downstream eutrophication and loss of biodiversity. Sycamore Creek in Arizona is nitrogen limited, but previous studies have demonstrated high potential for denitrification, a microbial process in which biologically active NO3- is reduced to relatively inert dinitrogen (N2) gas. Oak Creek is similarly nitrogen limited, but NO3- concentration in reaches surrounded by agriculture can be double that of other reaches. We employed a denitrification enzyme assay (DEA) to compare potential denitrification rate between differing land uses in Oak Creek and measured whole system N2 flux using a membrane inlet mass spectrometer to compare differences in actual denitrification rates at Sycamore and Oak Creek. We anticipated that NO3- would be an important limiting factor for denitrifiers; consequentially, agricultural land use reaches within Oak Creek would have the highest potential denitrification rate. We expected in situ denitrification rate to be higher in Oak Creek than Sycamore Creek due to elevated NO3- concentration, higher discharge, and larger streambed surface area. DEA results are forthcoming, but analysis of potassium chloride (KCl) extraction data showed that there were no significant differences between sites in sediment extractable NO3- on either a dry mass or organic mass basis. Whole-reach denitrification rate was inconclusive in Oak Creek, and though a significant positive flux in N2 from upstream to downstream was measured in Sycamore Creek, the denitrification rate was not significantly different from 0 after accounting for reaeration, suggesting that denitrification does not account for a significant portion of the NO3- uptake in Sycamore Creek. Future work is needed to address the specific factors limiting denitrification in this system.

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2018-05

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Sources and Decomposition of Dissolved Organic Matter in Desert Streams

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Dissolved organic matter (DOM) is an important part of aquatic foodwebs because it contains carbon, nitrogen, and other elements required by heterotrophic organisms. It has many sources that determine its molecular composition, nutrient content, and biological lability and in turn,

Dissolved organic matter (DOM) is an important part of aquatic foodwebs because it contains carbon, nitrogen, and other elements required by heterotrophic organisms. It has many sources that determine its molecular composition, nutrient content, and biological lability and in turn, influence whether it is retained and processed in the stream reach or exported downstream. I examined the composition of DOM from vascular wetland plants, filamentous algae, and riparian tree leaf litter in Sonoran Desert streams and its decomposition by stream microbes. I used a combination of field observations, in-situ experiments, and a manipulative laboratory incubation to test (1) how dominant primary producers influence DOM chemical composition and ecosystem metabolism at the reach scale and (2) how DOM composition and nitrogen (N) content control microbial decomposition and stream uptake of DOM. I found that differences in streamwater DOM composition between two distinct reaches of Sycamore Creek did not affect in-situ stream respiration and gross primary production rates. Stream sediment microbial respiration rates did not differ significantly when incubated in the laboratory with DOM from wetland plants, algae, and leaf litter, thus all sources were similarly labile. However, whole-stream uptake of DOM increased from leaf to algal to wetland plant leachate. Desert streams have the potential to process DOM from leaf, wetland, and algal sources, though algal and wetland DOM, due to their more labile composition, can be more readily retained and mineralized.

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2018

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Ecosystem spatial heterogeneity: formation, consequences, and feedbacks

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An understanding of the formation of spatial heterogeneity is important because spatial heterogeneity leads to functional consequences at the ecosystem scale; however, such an understanding is still limited. Particularly, research simultaneously considering both external variables and internal feedbacks (self-organization) is

An understanding of the formation of spatial heterogeneity is important because spatial heterogeneity leads to functional consequences at the ecosystem scale; however, such an understanding is still limited. Particularly, research simultaneously considering both external variables and internal feedbacks (self-organization) is rare, partly because these two drivers are addressed under different methodological frameworks. In this dissertation, I show the prevalence of internal feedbacks and their interaction with heterogeneity in the preexisting template to form spatial pattern. I use a variety of techniques to account for both the top-down template effect and bottom-up self-organization. Spatial patterns of nutrients in stream surface water are influenced by the self-organized patch configuration originating from the internal feedbacks between nutrient concentration, biological patchiness, and the geomorphic template. Clumps of in-stream macrophyte are shaped by the spatial gradient of water permanence and local self-organization. Additionally, significant biological interactions among plant species also influence macrophyte distribution. The relative contributions of these drivers change in time, responding to the larger external environments or internal processes of ecosystem development. Hydrologic regime alters the effect of geomorphic template and self-organization on in-stream macrophyte distribution. The relative importance of niche vs. neutral processes in shaping biodiversity pattern is a function of hydrology: neutral processes are more important in either very high or very low discharge periods. For the spatial pattern of nutrients, as the ecosystem moves toward late succession and nitrogen becomes more limiting, the effect of self-organization intensifies. Changes in relative importance of different drivers directly affect ecosystem macroscopic properties, such as ecosystem resilience. Stronger internal feedbacks in average to wetter years are shown to increase ecosystem resistance to elevated external stress, and make the backward shifts (vegetation loss) much more gradual. But it causes increases in ecosystem hysteresis effect. Finally, I address the question whether functional consequences of spatial heterogeneity feed back to influence the processes from which spatial heterogeneity emerged through a conceptual review. Such feedbacks are not likely. Self-organized spatial patterning is a result of regular biological processes of organisms. Individual organisms do not benefit from such order. It is order for free, and for nothing.

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2015

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Growing rocks: the effects of calcium carbonate deposition on phosphorus availability in streams

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Humans have dramatically increased phosphorus (P) availability in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. As P is often a limiting nutrient of primary production, changes in its availability can have dramatic effects on ecosystem processes. I examined the effects of calcium carbonate

Humans have dramatically increased phosphorus (P) availability in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. As P is often a limiting nutrient of primary production, changes in its availability can have dramatic effects on ecosystem processes. I examined the effects of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) deposition, which can lower P concentrations via coprecipitation of phosphate, on P availability in two systems: streams in the Huachuca Mountains, Arizona, and a stream, Río Mesquites, in Cuatro Ciénegas, México. Calcium carbonate forms as travertine in the former and within the microbialites of the latter. Despite these differences, CaCO3 deposition led to lowered P availability in both systems. By analyzing a three-year dataset of water chemistry from the Huachuca Mountain streams, I determined that P concentrations were negatively related to CaCO3 deposition rates. I also discovered that CaCO3 was positively correlated with nitrogen concentrations, suggesting that the stoichiometric effect of CaCO3 deposition on nutrient availability is due not only to coprecipitation of phosphate, but also to P-related constraints on biotic nitrogen uptake. Building from these observations, bioassays of nutrient limitation of periphyton growth suggest that P limitation is more prevalent in streams with active CaCO3 deposition than those without. Furthermore, when I experimentally reduced rates of CaCO3 deposition within one of the streams by partial light-exclusion, areal P uptake lengths decreased, periphyton P content and growth increased, and periphyton nutrient limitation by P decreased. In Río Mesquites, CaCO3 deposition was also associated with P limitation of microbial growth. There, I investigated the consequences of reductions in CaCO3 deposition with several methods. Calcium removal led to increased concentrations of P in the microbial biomass while light reductions decreased microbial biomass and chemical inhibition had no effect. These results suggest that CaCO3 deposition in microbialites does limit biological uptake of P, that photoautotrophs play an important role in nutrient acquisition, and, combined with other experimental observations, that sulfate reduction may support CaCO3 deposition in the microbialite communities of Río Mesquites. Overall, my results suggest that the effects of CaCO3 deposition on P availability are general and this process should be considered when managing nutrient flows across aquatic ecosystems.

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2015