Phytoplankton ecology in the upper Swan River estuary, Western Australia: with special reference to nitrogen uptake and microheterotroph grazing
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Phytoplankton succession and abundance in estuaries is known to be influenced by the relative strengths of various seasonally changing physical and chemical factors. Previous studies of Swan River Estuary phytoplankton biomass and composition have identified salinity, temperature, rainfall and nutrients as the most important controlling factors. These conclusions are generally based on analysis of data from river length transects and depth integrated day-time sampling. They describe influences ,affecting whole system phytoplankton abundance and succession. Many of the typical seasonal bloom that develop are ephemeral and only extend over relatively small areas. The focus of this study is a single site, Ron Courtney Island, considered typical of the upper estuary region. This region of the estuary was chosen as representative of the section of river most influenced by allochthonous nutrient input. It has been the region of most frequent and intense algal blooms over the past decade. The factors, physical, biological or physiological, that have the greatest influence on controlling phytoplankton biomass under various ambient conditions for this system are determined. While previous studies have recognised the importance of nitrogen to phytoplankton growth in the Swan River Estuary, they have focused on NO;, with only anecdotal reference to the importance of the alternative nitrogen source, NH4+. This is the first study to explore the influence of different nitrogen source fluxes on phytoplankton biomass in the upper Swan River Estuary. The roles of physiological adaptation to, and preferences for, 'new' (NO,), recycled (NH4+) and organic (urea) nitrogen sources in relation to ambient nutrient levels are explored.Specific uptake rates (v), normalised to chlorophyll a, for NO;, NH4+ and urea were 0.2 ± 0.04 - 1831.1 ± 779.19, 0.5 ± 0.26 - 1731.6 ± 346.67 and 3.0 ± 0.60 - 2241.2 ± 252.56 ng N μg Chla-1 respectively. Urea concentration (14.8 - 117.7 μg urea-N 1-1) remained relatively constant over the 12 month study period. Measured ambient specific uptake rates for urea represent between 27.5% and 40.4% of total N uptake over the annual period February 1998 -January 1999. Seasonal nitrate uptake over the same period constituted only 11.3% (±10.77%, n=12) to 24.4% (± 13.02%, n=12) with the highest percentage during winter, when nitrate levels are elevated. It is suggested that urea provides a nutrient intermediary over the spring - summer period during transition from autotrophic to heterotrophic dominated communities. Grazing ,and nitrogen recycling are intricately connected by simultaneously providing top-down biomass control and bottom-up nutrient supply. Zooplankton (> 44 μm) grazing has been shown to reduce up to 40% of phytoplankton standing stock at times. Microheterotrophs (<300 pm) can reduce phytoplankton biomass production by up to 100% (potential production grazed, 11.1% day' - 99.6 % day-1) over an annual cycle. This correlated to mean seasonal day-time grazing loss of 80.47 ± 3.5 ngN μg Chla-1 in surface waters and 20.17 ± 9.7 ngN μg Chla-1 at depth (4.5m). Night time grazing for surface and bottom depths resulted in similar nitrogen loss rates (13.03 ± 4.84 ngN μg Chla-1).Uptake rates for nitrate (r2 0.501) and urea (r2 0.512), doing with temperature (r2 0.605) were shown to have the greatest influence on phytoplankton distribution over depth and time. This research emphasises the need for more detailed investigations into the physiology of nutrient uptake and the effects of nutrient fluxes on phytoplankton biomass and distribution. Further research into the roles of organic nitrogen and pico and nanoplankton in this system is recommended.
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