Drivers of nitrogen transfer in stream food webs across continents

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
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Norman, Beth C.; Whiles, Matt R.; Collins, Sarah M.; Flecker, Alexander S.; Hamilton, Steve K.; Johnson, Sherri L.; Rosi, Emma J.; Ashkenas, Linda R.; Bowden, William B.; Crenshaw, Chelsea L.; Crowl, Todd; Dodds, Walter K.; Hall, Robert O.; El-Sabaawi, Rana; Griffiths, Natalie A.; Marti, Eugènia; McDowell, William H.; Peterson, Scot D.; Rantala, Heidi M.; Riis, Tenna; Simon, Kevin S.; Tank, Jennifer L.; Thomas, Steven A.; von Schiller, Daniel; Webster, Jackson R. 2017. Drivers of nitrogen transfer in stream food webs across continents. Ecology. 98(12): 3044-3055. doi: 10.1002/ecy.2009


Studies of trophic-level material and energy transfers are central to ecology. The use of isotopic tracers has now made it possible to measure trophic transfer efficiencies of important nutrients and to better understand how these materials move through food webs. We analyzed data from thirteen 15N-ammonium tracer addition experiments to quantify N transfer from basal resources to animals in headwater streams with varying physical, chemical, and biological features. N transfer efficiencies from primary uptake compartments (PUCs; heterotrophic microorganisms and primary producers) to primary consumers was lower (mean 11.5%, range 100%). Total N transferred (as a rate) was greater in streams with open compared to closed canopies and overall N transfer efficiency generally followed a similar pattern, although was not statistically significant. We used principal component analysis to condense a suite of site characteristics into two environmental components. Total N uptake rates among trophic levels were best predicted by the component that was correlated with latitude, DIN:SRP, GPP:ER, and percent canopy cover. N transfer efficiency did not respond consistently to environmental variables. Our results suggest that canopy cover influences N movement through stream food webs because light availability and primary production facilitate N transfer to higher trophic levels.
Keywords: 15N; food chain efficiency; food webs; isotope tracer experiment; nitrogen; stream