Science Serving Maryland's Coasts

Research Publications: UM-SG-RS-2003-30


The effects of multiple stressors on the balance between autotrophic and heterotrophic processes in an estuarine system.




Wiegner, TN; Seitzinger, SP; Breitburg, DL; Sanders, JG


Estuaries 26(2):352-364




Responses of autotrophic and heterotrophic processes to nutrients and trace elements were examined in a series of experimental estuarine food webs of increasing trophic complexity using twenty 1-m(3) mesocosms. Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) and trace elements (a mix of arsenic, copper, cadmium) were added alone and in combination during four experimental runs spanning from spring 1997 to spring 1998. Diel changes in dissolved oxygen were used to examine whole system gross primary production (WS-GPP), respiration (WS-RESP), and net ecosystem metabolism (NEM). Nutrient and trace element additions had the greatest effect on WS-GPP, WS-RESP, and NEM; trophic complexity did not significantly affect any of these parameters (p > 0.3). Effects of trophic complexity were detected in nutrient tanks where bivalves significantly (p = 0.03) reduced WS-GPP. Nutrient additions significantly enhanced WS-GPP and to a lesser extent WS-RESP during most mesocosm runs. The system shifted from net heterotrophy (-17.2 +/- 1.8 mmol C m(-3) d-1) in the controls to net autotrophy (29.1 +/- 7.6 mmol C m(-3) d-1) in the nutrient tanks. The addition of trace elements alone did not affect WS-GPP and WS-RESP to the same extent as nutrients, and their effects were more variable. Additions of trace elements alone consistently made the system more net heterotrophic (-24.9 +/- 1.4 mmol C m(-3) d-1) than the controls. When trace elements were added in combination with nutrients, the nutrient-enriched system became less autotrophic (1.6 +/- 3.1 mmol C m(-3) d-1). The effects of trace elements on NEM occurred primarily through reductions in WS-GPP rather than increases in WS-RESP. Our results suggest that autotrophic and heterotrophic processes respond differently to these stressors.

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