Response of grazing snails to phosphorus enrichment of modern stromatolitic microbial communities

James J. Elser, John H. Schampel, Marcia Kyle, James Watts, Evan W. Carson, Thomas E. Dowling, Carol Tang, Peter D. Roopnarine

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1. The effects of added phosphorus (P) on the growth, P and RNA : DNA contents, and survivorship of snails grazing on laminated microbial mats (living 'stromatolites') were examined in the Rio Mesquites at Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico (total P, c. 0.60 μmol L-1) to test the hypothesis that strong P-limitation of microautotroph growth produces a stoichiometric constraint on herbivores because of mineral P-limitation. 2. In a 3-week experiment performed in summer 2001, addition of phosphorus (+15 μmol L -1) resulted in a strong decline in stromatolite biomass C : P ratio from very high levels (c. 2300 : 1 by atoms) to moderate levels (c. 550 : 1). The endemic hydrobiid snail Mexithauma quadripaludium responded to P-enrichment with elevated body P content and higher RNA : DNA ratios, especially for small animals likely to be actively growing. This positive response is consistent with the existence of a stoichiometric constraint on snail growth. 3. In a longer experiment (8 weeks) involving a more moderate P enrichment (+5 μmol L -1) in summer 2002, P enrichment reduced stromatolite C : P ratio from moderate values in control treatments (c. 750) to very low values (<100 : 1). Snails responded to stromatolite P-enrichment with increased body P content but, in contrast to the first experiment, with lower RNA : DNA ratio, lower growth rates, and higher mortality. 4. These contrasting results suggest that both very high and very low biomass C : P ratios in stromatolites are detrimental to M. quadripaludium performance, leading us to hypothesise that these herbivores live on a 'stoichiometric knife edge'.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1826-1835
Number of pages10
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2005


  • Cambrian explosion
  • Phosphorus
  • Snails
  • Stoichiometry
  • Stream
  • Stromatolites


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