Small-scale heterogeneity of microbial N uptake in streams and its implications at the ecosystem level

350 210 Stroud Water Research Center

Peipoch, M., E. Bastias, A. Serra, L. Proia, M. Ribot, S. N. Merbt, and E. Martí. 2016. Ecology 97:1329–1344.

doi: 10.1890/15-1210.1


Large-scale factors associated with the environmental context of streams can explain a notable amount of variability in patterns of stream N cycling at the reach scale. However, when environmental factors fail to accurately predict stream responses at the reach level, focusing on emergent properties from small-scale heterogeneity in N cycling rates may help understand observed patterns in stream N cycling. To address how small-scale heterogeneity may contribute to shape patterns in whole-reach N uptake, we examined the drivers and variation in microbial N uptake at small spatial scales in two stream reaches with different environmental constraints (i.e., riparian canopy). Our experimental design was based on two 15N additions combined with a hierarchical sampling design from reach to microhabitat scales. Regardless of the degree of canopy cover, small-scale heterogeneity of microbial N uptake ranged by three orders of magnitude, and was characterized by a low abundance of highly active microhabitats (i.e., hot spots). The presence of those hot spots of N uptake resulted in a nonlinear spatial distribution of microbial N uptake rates within the streambed, especially in the case of epilithon assemblages. Small-scale heterogeneity in N uptake and turnover rates at the microhabitat scale was primarily driven by power relationships between N cycling rates and stream water velocity. Overall, fine benthic organic matter (FBOM) assemblages responded clearly to changes in the degree of canopy cover, overwhelming small-scale heterogeneity in its N uptake rates, and suggesting that FBOM contribution to whole-reach N uptake was principally imposed by environmental constraints from larger scales. In contrast, N uptake rates by epilithon showed no significant response to different environmental influences, but identical local drivers and spatial variation in each study reach. Therefore, contribution of epilithon assemblages to whole-reach N uptake was mainly associated with emerging properties from small-scale heterogeneity at lower spatial scales.