The stoichiometry of consumer-driven nutrient recycling: Theory, observations, and consequences

James J. Elser, Jotaro Urabe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

550 Scopus citations


Ecologists are increasingly recognizing the importance of consumers in regulating ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling. Ecologists have recently made considerable progress in understanding nutrient cycling and trophic interactions in pelagic systems by application of a new concept, ecological stoichiometry, to consumer-driven processes. In this paper we synthesize these conceptual advances within pelagic ecology and attempt to illustrate how they may be usefully applied in other ecosystems. Stoichiometric theory shows that both grazer and algal elemental composition are critical parameters influencing rates and ratios of nutrient release. Thus, the stoichiometry of nutrient recycling is a feedback mechanism linking grazer dynamics and algal nutritional status. Incorporation of such effects into a fully dynamic stoichiometric model generates profound changes in the predicted dynamics of algae and grazers, suggesting that adoption of a stoichiometric view may substantively alter our view of the interaction between trophic dynamics and nutrient cycling. The basic predictions of stoichiometric models of nutrient release are generally supported by experimental data showing that N:P release ratios are primarily a function of algal N:P ratio and secondarily a function of grazer N:P ratio, and that rates of P release by grazers are also related to food P:C. Furthermore, evidence for effects of nutrient release stoichiometry on phytoplankton communities and pelagic ecosystem function is accumulating, including data showing consistent alterations in algal physiological status and ecosystem-scale changes in N fixation in response to altered grazer community structure and elemental composition. As the general features of the stoichiometry of algae-zooplankton interactions reflect fundamental biological processes linked to plant and animal mineral nutrition, the stoichiometric view of consumer-driven nutrient recycling can easily be applied to other ecosystems, including terrestrial and benthic food webs. A suite of potential applications of stoichiometric thinking to benthic and terrestrial habitats is suggested.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)735-751
Number of pages17
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1999


  • Carbon
  • Consumer-driven nutrient recycling
  • Food quality
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Phosphorus
  • Stoichiometry
  • Zooplankton


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