Taxon-specific photosynthetic responses of attached algal assemblages to experimental translocation between river habitats

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Attached algal and cyanobacterial taxa differ in their ability to exploit and tolerate the diversity of flow, irradiance, and temperature regimes typical of a heterogeneous riverscape. Understanding the drivers of the small-scale variation in algal taxonomic composition helps us predict the riverscape-scale effects of altered flow regimes, but microhabitat-scale variation in algal taxonomy complicates the interpretation of ecosystem-scale estimates of bio-mass or primary production. Using pulse-amplitude modulated (PAM) fluorometry, we performed 2 manipulative field experiments (in 2014 and 2015) to measure photosynthetic responses of algae and cyanobacteria to depth, temperature, and flow modifications. In 2014, we exposed 6 attached algal assemblages common to the South Fork Eel River (California, USA) to a 24-h incubation on either the river bottom (20 cm deep) or floating at the water surface. In 2015, we incubated 3 algal assemblages for 1 wk in either the thalweg or at the river’s edge. For PAM measurements, we developed a novel method (Photosynthesis–Irradiance Periphyton Experimental System [PIPES]) for manipulating attached filamentous algae, a morphology common in aquatic habitats but underrepresented in photosynthesis experiments. To make the PIPES, we sandwiched thin (<1 mm) layers of filamentous attached algae between 2 layers of mesh so that the algae could be isolated and manipulated for repeated PAM measurements. In the 2014 experiment, incubating Cladophora, Rivularia, Microcoleus, and Anabaena at the water surface tended to decrease photosynthetic rates relative to submerged controls, whereas for Nostoc, the photosynthetic rates were higher in floating treatments. In the 2015 experiment, Cladophora and Oedogonium incubated in the warmer, low-flow river margin had persistently lower photosynthesis rates than their counterparts incubated in the thalweg. The PIPES method improves our ability to make PAM measurements on attached algae. PIPES can be used in conjunction with other methods to evaluate taxon-specific responses to environmental conditions and to help us predict how algal assemblages will shift in dominance under different river management regimes.

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Freshwater Science