Coupling nutrient uptake and energy flow in headwater streams

C. S. Fellows, H. M. Valett, C. N. Dahm, P. J. Mulholland, S. A. Thomas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Nutrient cycling and energy flow in ecosystems are tightly linked through the metabolic processes of organisms. Greater uptake of inorganic nutrients is expected to be associated with higher rates of metabolism [gross primary production (GPP) and respiration (R)], due to assimilatory demand of both autotrophs and heterotrophs. However, relationships between uptake and metabolism should vary with the relative contribution of autochthonous and allochthonous sources of organic matter. To investigate the relationship between metabolism and nutrient uptake, we used whole-stream and benthic chamber methods to measure rates of nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N) uptake and metabolism in four headwater streams chosen to span a range of light availability and therefore differing rates of GPP and contributions of autochthonous carbon. We coupled whole-stream metabolism with measures of NO3-N uptake conducted repeatedly over the same stream reach during both day and night, as well as incubating benthic sediments under both light and dark conditions. NO3-N uptake was generally greater in daylight compared to dark conditions, and although day-night differences in whole-stream uptake were not significant, light-dark differences in benthic chambers were significant at three of the four sites. Estimates of N demand indicated that assimilation by photoautotrophs could account for the majority of NO 3-N uptake at the two sites with relatively open canopies. Contrary to expectations, photoautotrophs contributed substantially to NO3-N uptake even at the two closed-canopy sites, which had low values of GPP/R and relied heavily on allochthonous carbon to fuel R.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)788-804
Number of pages17
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 2006


  • Allochthonous
  • Autochthonous
  • Autotroph
  • Carbon
  • Heterotroph
  • Metabolism
  • Nitrogen
  • Primary production
  • Respiration


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