Heterogeneity in habitat and nutrient availability facilitate the co-occurrence of N2 fixation and denitrification across wetland–stream–lake ecotones of Lakes Superior and Huron

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Department of Biological Sciences; College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Great Lakes coastlines are mosaics of wetland, stream, and lake habitats, characterized by a high degree of spatial heterogeneity that may facilitate the co-occurrence of seemingly incompatible biogeochemical processes due to variation in environmental factors that favor each process. We measured nutrient limitation and rates of N2 fixation and denitrification along transects in 5 wetland–stream–lake ecotones with different nutrient loading in Lakes Superior and Huron. We hypothesized that rates of both processes would be related to nutrient limitation status, habitat type, and environmental characteristics including temperature, nutrient concentrations, and organic matter quality. We found that median denitrification rates (914 μg N m−2 h−1) were 166 × higher than N2 fixation rates (5.5 μg N m−2 h−1), but the processes co-occurred in 48% of 83 points measured across all 5 transects and habitat types. N2 fixation occurred on sediment and macrophyte substrate, while denitrification occurred mostly in sediment. Nutrient-diffusing substrate experiments indicated that biofilm chlorophyll-a was limited by N and/or P at 55% and biofilm AFDM was limited at 26% of sample points. N2 fixation and denitrification rates did not differ significantly with differing nutrient limitation. Predictive models for N2 fixation and denitrification rates both included variables related to the composition of dissolved organic matter, while the model for N2 fixation also included P concentrations. These results demonstrate the potential for heterogeneity in habitat characteristics, nutrient availability, and organic matter composition to lead to biogeochemical complexity at the local scale, despite overall N removal at broader scales.

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