Aggregated filter-feeding consumers alter nutrient limitation: consequences for ecosystem and community dynamics.

Abstract

Nutrient cycling is a key process linking organisms in ecosystems. This is especially apparent in stream environments in which nutrients are taken up readily and cycled through the system in a downstream trajectory. Ecological stoichiometry predicts that biogeochemical cycles of different elements are interdependent because the organisms that drive these cycles require fixed ratios of nutrients. There is growing recognition that animals play an important role in biogeochemical cycling across ecosystems. In particular, dense aggregations of consumers can create biogeochemical hotspots in aquatic ecosystems via nutrient translocation. We predicted that filter-feeding freshwater mussels, which occur as speciose, high-biomass aggregates, would create biogeochemical hotspots in streams by altering nutrient limitation and algal dynamics. In a field study, we manipulated nitrogen and phosphorus using nutrient-diffusing substrates in areas with high and low mussel abundance, recorded algal growth and community composition, and determined in situ mussel excretion stoichiometry at 18 sites in three rivers (Kiamichi, Little, and Mountain Fork Rivers, south-central United States). Our results indicate that mussels greatly influence ecosystem processes by modifying the nutrients that limit primary productivity. Sites without mussels were N-limited with -26% higher relative abundances of N-fixing blue-green algae, while sites with high mussel densities were co-limited (N and P) and dominated by diatoms. These results corroborated the results of our excretion experiments; our path analysis indicated that mussel excretion has a strong influence on stream water column N:P. Due to the high N:P of mussel excretion, strict N-limitation was alleviated, and the system switched to being co-limited by both N and P. This shows that translocation of nutrients by mussel aggregations is important to nutrient dynamics and algal species composition in these rivers. Our study highlights the importance of consumers and this imperiled faunal group on nutrient cycling and community dynamics in aquatic ecosystems.

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