Primary consumers and particulate organic matter: Isotopic evidence of strong selectivity in the estuarine transition zone

Martineau, Christine, Warwick F. Vincent, Jean-Jacques Frenette, Julian J. Dodson

Limnol. Oceanogr., 49(5), 2004, 1679-1686 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2004.49.5.1679

ABSTRACT: The freshwater-saltwater transition zones of upper estuaries often contain high concentrations of particulate organic matter (POM) that could potentially support their productive food webs. Our objectives were to define the carbon and nitrogen isotopic characteristics of POM across the estuarine transition zone (ETZ) of the St. Lawrence River, Canada, and to determine the availability of this material to primary consumers. The δ13C of seston from upstream freshwater samples (-26.3 ± 0.9‰) indicated a large contribution of terrestrially derived organic material, whereas downstream sites had higher values (-24.8 ± 0.5‰) attributable to dilution with marine phytoplankton. The ETZ turbidity maximum had more negative values (-27.0 ± 1.6‰), especially the <5-mm fraction (-30.0 ± 1.3‰) that contributed 56-86% of the POM. The δ13C of the dominant consumer species in the ETZ (Bosmina longirostris, Keratella sp., Eurytemora affinis, and adult Dreissena polymorpha) averaged -21.0 ± 0.9‰, well above the seston values. The δ15N of the three animals of lowest trophic position averaged 7.3 ± 0.8‰, less than 2‰ above the seston δ15N (5.7 ± 0.2‰ for all sites). Our results imply that the bulk POM is largely detrital and unavailable to the ETZ food web and that the primary consumers feed selectively on phytoplankton despite its low contribution (<10%) to total POM. A cross-system comparison of isotopic data shows that the large enrichment of 13C in consumers relative to POM is unusual, underscoring the distinctive character of turbid, upper estuarine ecosystems.

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