Changes in carbon stable isotope ratios during periphyton development

Hill, Walter R., R. Gerry Middleton

Limnol. Oceanogr., 51(5), 2006, 2360-2369 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2006.51.5.2360

ABSTRACT: Stable isotopes are widely used to infer trophic relationships with little attention paid to temporal variability at the base of the food web. We examined changes in the carbon-stable isotope composition during periphyton development, sampling periphyton that accumulated on ceramic tiles at four stream sites over a 2-month period. Periphyton 13C rose and fell in general concordance with rising and falling biomass at all four sites, resulting in significant correlations between periphyton δ13C and chlorophyll a (Chl a). Mean δ13C values at one site rose from -26‰ to -20‰ in 2 weeks, falling back to -24‰ the next week after a large scouring spate. Periphyton 13C also underwent a smaller, longer-term increase that correlated with a gradual rise in stream temperature. Multiple regression analysis with both Chl a and temperature as independent variables accounted for up to 88% of the temporal variability in δ13C, with Chl a the largest source of variability. Water velocity, measured on each sampling occasion, was unrelated to temporal changes in 13C. Depletion of inorganic carbon within the periphyton matrix is the probable cause of increasing 13C in periphyton as biomass develops. Rising δ13C values during periphyton biomass development suggest the possibility of carbon-limited periphyton growth, even in alkaline waters. The strong link between biomass and periphyton 13C helps explain the large range of δ13C reported for periphyton in streams, where temporal and spatial variability in periphyton biomass are notorious.

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