Whole-stream 13C tracer addition reveals distinct fates of newly fixed carbon

Erin R. Hotchkiss, Robert O. Hall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many estimates of freshwater carbon (C) fluxes focus on inputs, processing, and storage of terrestrial C; yet inland waters have high rates of internally fixed (autochthonous) C production. Some fraction of newly fixed C may be released as biologically available, dissolved organic C (DOC) and stimulate microbial-driven biogeochemical cycles soon after fixation, but the fate of autochthonous C is difficult to measure directly. Tracing newly fixed C can increase our understanding of fluxes and fate of autochthonous C in the context of freshwater food webs and C cycling. We traced autochthonous C fixation and fate using a dissolved inorganic C stable isotope addition (13CDIC). We added 13CDIC to North Fork French Creek, Wyoming, USA during two days in August. We monitored changes in 13C pools, fluxes, and storage for 44 d after the addition. Two-compartment flux models were used to quantify net release of newly fixed 13CDOC and 13CDIC into the water column. We compared net 13C fixation with tracer 13CDIC removal and gross primary production (GPP) to account for the mass of tracer fixed, released, lost to the atmosphere, and exported downstream. Much of the fixed C turned over rapidly and did not enter longer-term storage pools. Net C fixed was 70% of GPP measured with O2. Algae likely released the remaining 30% via 13CDOC exudation and respiration of newly fixed C. Primary producers released 13CDOC at rates of up to 16% per day during the 13C addition, but exudation of new labile C declined to near zero by day 6. DIC production from newly fixed C accounted for 21% of ecosystem respiration the day after the 13C addition. All measured organic C (OC) pools were enriched with 13C 1 d after the tracer addition. 20% of fixed 13C remained in benthic OC by day 44, and average residence time of autochthonous C in benthic OC was 62 d. Newly fixed C had two distinct fates: short-term (<1 week) exudation and respiration or longer-term storage and downstream export. Autochthonous C in streams likely fuels short-term microbial production and biogeochemical cycling, in addition to providing a longer-term resource for consumers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)403-416
Number of pages14
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2015


  • Autochthonous
  • C cycling
  • C tracer
  • Doc exudation
  • Ecosystem metabolism
  • Residence time
  • Stable isotopes
  • Streams


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