Nitrogen limitation of pond ecosystems on the plains of Eastern Colorado

John A. Mischler, Philip G. Taylor, Alan R. Townsend

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30 Scopus citations


Primary production in freshwater ecosystems is often limited by the availability of phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N), or a combination of both (NP co-limitation). While N fixation via heterocystous cyanobacteria can supply additional N, no comparable mechanism for P exists; hence P is commonly considered to be the predominant and ultimate limiting nutrient in freshwater ecosystems. However, N limitation can be maintained if P is supplied in stoichiometric excess of N (including N fixation). The main objective of this study was to examine patterns in nutrient limitation across a series of 21 vernal ponds in Eastern Colorado where high P fluxes are common. Across all ponds, water column dissolved inorganic N steadily decreased throughout the growth season due to biological demand while total dissolved P remained stable. The water column dissolved inorganic N to total dissolved P ratios suggested a transition from NP co-limitation to N limitation across the growth season. Periphyton and phytoplankton %C was strongly correlated with %N while %P was assimilated in excess of %N and %C in many ponds. Similarly, in nutrient addition bottle assays algae responded more strongly to N additions (11 out of 18 water bodies) than P additions (2 out of 18 water bodies) and responded most strongly when N and P were added in concert (12 out of 18 water bodies). Of the ponds that responded to nutrient addition, 92% exhibited some sort of N limitation while less than 8% were limited by P alone. Despite multiple lines of evidence for N limitation or NP co-limitation, N fixation rates were uniformly low across most ponds, most likely due to inhibition by water column nitrate. Within this set of 18 water bodies, N limitation or NP co-limitation is widespread due to the combination high anthropogenic P inputs and constrained N fixation rates.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere95757
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 13 2014


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