Coupled cycling of dissolved organic nitrogen and carbon in a forest stream

E. N.Jack Brookshire, H. Maurice Valett, Steven A. Thomas, Jackson R. Webster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

127 Scopus citations


Dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) is an abundant but poorly understood pool of N in many ecosystems. We assessed DON cycling in a N-limited headwater forest stream via whole-ecosystem additions of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) and labile dissolved organic matter (DOM), hydrologic transport and biogeochemical modeling, and laboratory experiments with native sediments. We sampled surface and subsurface waters to understand how interaction among hydrologic exchange, DIN, DON, and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) influence stream N losses at summer baseflow. Added DON was taken up rapidly from the water column at rates exceeding DOC and DIN. A significant fraction of this DON was mineralized and nitrified. Combined DON and NO3-N uptake lengths resulted in spiraling lengths of ∼210 m, suggesting the potential for multiple transformations of labile N loads within catchment boundaries. Simultaneous addition of DIN increased DOM uptake, but more so for C, resulting in an upward shift in the C:N ratio of uptake. Sediment incubations also showed a strong biotic influence on DOC and DON dynamics. Despite efficient uptake of added DOM, background DON and high molecular mass DOC concentrations increased downstream, resulting in higher DOM loads than could be accounted for by groundwater discharge and suggesting net release of less bioavailable forms from the channel/hyporheic zone. At the same time, subsurface DOM was characterized by very low C:N ratios and a disproportionately large DON pool despite rapid hydrologic mixing with dilute and high C:N ratio surface waters. Analysis of expected DON loads from conservative hyporheic fluxes indicated that watershed losses of DON would have been seven times greater in the absence of apparent benthic demand, suggesting tight internal cycling of subsurface DON. Our study further demonstrates the potential for significant transformation of N in headwater streams before export to downstream ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2487-2496
Number of pages10
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2005


  • Cycling
  • Dissolved organic carbon
  • Dissolved organic nitrogen
  • Forest stream
  • Headwater catchment
  • Hydrologic losses
  • Nutrient uptake
  • Spiraling


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