Effects of phosphorus enrichment and grazing snails on modern stromatolitic microbial communities

James J. Elser, John H. Schampel, Ferran Garcia-Pichel, Brian D. Wade, Valeria Souza, Luis Eguiarte, Ana Escalante, Jack D. Farmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


1. The effects of phosphorus enrichment and grazing snails on a benthic microbial community that builds stromatolic oncolites were examined in an experiment at Rio Mesquites, Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico. Chemical analyses of stream water samples indicated that overall atomic ratios of total nitrogen (N) to total phosphorus (P) were approximately 110, indicating a strong potential for P-limitation of microbial growth. 2. Phosphorus enrichment involved addition of 5 μmol Na 2HPO 4 L -1 to streamside microcosms receiving intermittent inputs of stream water while grazer manipulation involved removal of the dominant grazer, the snail Mexithauma quadripaludium. After 7 weeks, we examined responses in organic matter content, C : N : P ratios, metabolism (P removal, primary production, dark respiration, and calcification), and microbial community structure using molecular fingerprinting of 16S rRNA genes. 3. Manipulation of snails did not affect response variables measured in these treatments (organic matter, C : P ratio, P removal rate). However, P enrichment significantly decreased the C : P and N : P ratios of surficial materials in the oncolites (organic matter content was unchanged), increased net and gross photosynthesis (oxygen consumption in the dark was unchanged), increased rates of calcification, and increased diatoms relative to cyanobacteria. Heterotrophic Eubacteria and Archaea were only modestly affected. Thus, our results indicate weak grazing effects but strong impacts of P in this benthic system. 4. We hypothesise that a state of severe P-limitation is imposed on autotrophic production in this food web due, at least in part, to co-precipitation of phosphate during calcite deposition. This produces severe P-limitation of the benthic algae and cyanobacteria, resulting in high C : P ratio of microbial mats relative to the biomass of photoautotrophs (phytoplankton, terrestrial foliage) in other ecosystems. In turn, this high C : P ratio is likely to generate severe stoichiometric constraints on the herbivores, thus limiting their populations and resulting in weak overall grazing impacts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1808-1825
Number of pages18
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2005


  • Nutrient limitation
  • Phosphorus
  • Snails
  • Stoichiometry
  • Stream
  • Stromatolites


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