Nitrogen continues to confound convention

Ah nitrogen…  It is the most abundant molecule in the air that we breathe (close to 80%), yet plants always seem to be starving for it.  Annually, nitrogen fertilizers are a $75 billion dollar industry. The problem is that the nitrogen gas that we breathe (N2) is very nonreactive, because the two nitrogen atoms are held together by a massively powerful triple bond.  So N2 must be broken down to some other more usable form (such as ammonia) – a process we call nitrogen fixation.  Most nitrogen fixers are microorganisms that live in soils or symbiotically within plants.  Unfortunately, N-fixation is energetically very costly, so even organisms that can fix nitrogen will generally happily use nitrogen compounds from the soil or leaf litter (the layer of fallen leaves above the soil) if they are available, rather than expending enormous energy to fix it for themselves. The general formula for nitrogen fixation (ignoring protons, electrons and energy transfers) is…


A few years ago Scott Morford, Benjamin Houlton and Randy Dahlgren (the first two are co-authors of the present study) stunned the ecological world by identifying a previously unsuspected source of nitrogen – weathering of bedrock such as the mica schist pictured below. This bedrock was formed from seabeds which were rich in organic matter and had a high concentration of nitrogen compounds When the rock breaks down, both carbon and nitrogen compounds leach into the soil. Katherine Dynarski became interested in nitrogen fixation as an undergrad at Villanova University, so it was natural for her to move to the University of California at Davis to begin her graduate work with Morford and Houlton on how nitrogen cycles through ecosystems.


Nitrogen-rich mica schist bedrock. Credit: Katherine Dynarski.

Dynarski got involved in this specific project essentially by accident. She was helping a fellow graduate student collect rocks at adjacent forests on contrasting bedrock (one high-N mica schist, and one low-N basalt), and figured that while she was out there, she might as well measure some N-fixation rates. In leaf litter and the soil below, most N-fixation is done by free-living soil bacteria. Dynarski expected higher N-fixation rates in the litter collected above the N-poor bedrock, reasoning that the microorganisms would need to fix nitrogen from the air, because there was little present in the litter.  In contrast, she expected to find lower N-fixation rates in litter collected above the N-rich bedrock, reasoning that the micro-organisms could save considerable energy by using existing nitrogen that had leached into the soil and leaf litter layer. She was shocked when she ran the samples and found exactly the opposite of her expectation, which led her to develop a more substantial project looking at the relationship between bedrock and N fixing microbes.


Katherine Dynarski conducting gas incubations to measure N-fixation rates in the field. Credit: Scott Mitchell.

Working in northern California and Western Oregon, Dynarski and her colleagues identified sites whose bedrock was low in nitrogen (below 500 parts per million N) or high in nitrogen (above 500 ppm N). The researchers used soil and leaf litter samples from 14 paired sites – high N bedrock with nearby low N bedrock. They analyzed soil and leaf litter samples from each plot for concentration of nitrogen, carbon (C), phosphorus (P) and molybdenum (Mo) – the latter two elements have been shown in other systems to limit the rate of N-fixation.  The researchers also collected samples of underlying bedrock and analyzed N and Mo content of these rocks.

Recall that the conventional paradigm is that microorganisms should have lower N-fixation rates in N-rich environments.  There was negligible N-fixation occurring in the soil, but considerable N-fixation in the leaf litter above.  Thus the conventional prediction was that N-fixation rates would be higher in leaf litter above low-N bedrock. As I mentioned previously, Dynarski found the exact opposite to be true in one site; would this unconventional finding be confirmed by the 14 sites explored in this study?

The answer is yes!  Considerably more N-fixation was detected in leaf litter above high N bedrock than in leaf litter above low N bedrock.


Mean leaf litter N-fixation rates and low-N and High_N bedrock sites.  Error bars are one standard deviation. P = 0.014.

You will notice the large error bars above the graph.  As it turns out, N-fixation rates vary dramatically – even on a very small spatial scale, which is why the researchers took multiple samples from each site. Some sample sites (hotspots) have unusually high rates of N-fixation.  These hotspots are also strongly correlated with high carbon concentration, with greater C in the leaf litter associated with much higher rates of N-fixation.


Litter N-fixation rates in relation to % soil carbon at N-fixation hotspots. Hotspots are defined as having fixation rates greater than 1 kg N per hectare per year.

Dynarski and her colleagues also discovered that, in general, leaf litter above high-N bedrock tended to have more C and P than did leaf litter above low-N bedrock.  Given this finding (along with the hotspot finding) we are now ready to explore the question of why microbes are expending more energy to fix nitrogen in regions where more nitrogen is naturally available.

The researchers considered two hypotheses.  First, it takes N to make N.  N-fixation is catalyzed by N-rich enzymes. It may be that leaf litter above low-N bedrock is too N-poor to provide microbes with enough nitrogen make these enzymes. So the additional nitrogen from high-N bedrock is just enough to allow microbes to produce the N-fixation enzymes.

The second hypothesis is that the litter above low-N bedrock is also low in C, P and Mo, all of which are required for N-fixation. Thus the positive effect of these nutrients overwhelms the negative effect of additional nitrogen on the rate of nitrogen fixation.  According to this hypothesis, the conventional paradigm of high nitrogen availability reducing the rate of N-fixation is correct, but other factors may be equally or more important in natural ecosystems.

Fortunately, this conundrum is easily resolved.  Dynarski and her colleagues took some leaf litter samples and added a small amount of nitrogen to them.  These N-additions significantly reduced N-fixation rates at both low and high bedrock N sites.  Thus environmental N does reduce biological N-fixation, but other factors, such as the availability of other essential nutrients, can overwhelm the inhibitory effect of environmental nitrogen in natural ecosystems


A Douglas fir forest in the Oregon Coast Range, where some of this research was conducted.  Credit: Katherine Dynarski.

The researchers conclude that nitrogen input from bedrock weathering leads to increased C storage and P retention, ultimately enhancing rates of N-fixation. About 75% of Earth’s surface is underlain by rocks with substantial N reservoirs, so we need to continue exploring the effects of weathering bedrock on ecosystem processes and functioning.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Dynarski, K. A., S. L. Morford, S. A. Mitchell, and B. Z. Houlton. 2019. Bedrock nitrogen weathering stimulates biological nitrogen fixation. Ecology 100(8):e02741. 10.1002/ ecy.2741. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Tropical trophic cascade slows decomposers

In the rough and tumble natural world, consumers such as lions, lady bugs, llamas and lizards get most of the press, while producers such as peas, pumpkins and phytoplankton come in a close second.  Consumers earn their name because they get their energy from consuming other organisms, while producers produce their own energy (using photosynthesis or chemosynthesis) from inorganic molecules.  Often ignored in this ecosystem structural scheme are decomposers, which get their energy from breaking down the tissue of dead organisms.  They should not be ignored.  Much of the energy transferred through ecosystems passes through decomposers.

One reason they are overlooked is that most decomposers are tiny. Some of the largest decomposers are detritivores, which actually eat the dead materials (detritus), in contrast to other microbial decomposers such as bacteria and fungi.  Shredders are detritivores commonly found in streams and rivers; these aquatic insects eat portions of dead leaves and, in the process, shred them into much smaller pieces that energize other decomposers. Many researchers had noted that shredders were relatively rare in tropical streams, in part because there are many other larger consumers in the ecosystem that are willing to eat dead leaves and any shredders associated with them. Thus Troy Simon and his colleagues expected that shredders, such as the caddisfly, Phylloicus hansoni, would play, at best, a minor role in the streams they studied in the Northern Range Mountains in Trinidad.


A typical headwater stream located in the Northern Range mountains of Trinidad. Waterfalls in the uppermost reaches of these streams act as a barrier to the upstream movement of guppies, but not killifish and crabs, which can move over land during periods of heavy rain. Credit: Joshua Goldberg.

We will discuss interactions between several species in these aquatic systems.  Trees are important producers as they shed leaves into the streams; these leaves are broken down by shredders such as the aforementioned caddisflies and also microbial decomposers.   The major consumers are omnivorous crabs, Eudaniela garmani, which eat leaves and caddisflies (and many other items), and two fish species. Killifish, Anablepsoides hartii, eat caddisflies, other invertebrates and also the occasional small fish (including fish eggs).


Hart’s killifish (Anablepsoides hartii) are primarily insectivorous and major consumers of leaf‐shredding caddisflies. Credit: Pierson Hill.

Guppies, Poecilia reticulata, are much smaller than killifish, maxing out at 32 mm long in comparison to the killifish maximum length of 100 mm.  But guppies are much more omnivorous, feeding on leaves, leaf-shredding insects and even killifish eggs and larvae.


Male (left) and female (right) Trinidadian guppy (Poecilia reticulata). Guppies are omnivorous, feeding broadly on detritus as well as plant and animal prey, including young killifish. Credit: Pierson Hill.

Amazingly, killifish can disperse over land, as can crabs (less amazingly).  This allows them to bypass barrier waterfalls during wet periods, which results in them being the only large consumer species above waterfalls in many Trinidad streams.  Guppies lack killifish dispersal abilities, so they are often confined to stream reaches below significant waterfalls.  These species, and their consumption patterns are highlighted in the figure below.


Diagram of the two detrital-based food webs.  Above the waterfall is the KC reach, named after its two important consumers, killifish and crabs.  Below the waterfalls is the KCG reach, named after its three important consumers, killifish, crabs and guppies. Arrows show direction of energy flow within the ecosystem.

Simon and his colleagues wanted to know how interactions among all of these species influenced the rate of leaf decomposition.  The researchers constructed identical-size leaf packs of recently fallen leaves of the Guarumo tree, Cercropia peltata, and attached them to copper wire frames within each reach of the stream.  They periodically harvested a subset of the packs and measured the amount of decomposition by drying and weighing the leaves, and comparing this weight to the starting weight of the leaf pack.  In addition, they collected all invertebrates > 1 mm long from each leaf pack and identified them to species or genus.

To control the consumers involved in each interaction, Simon and his colleagues constructed underwater electric exclosures which created an electric field that convinced all fish and crabs to exit (and stay out) within 30 seconds of being turned on, but did not influence invertebrates in any detectable way.  Killifish are active day and night, guppies only during the day, and the researchers believed that crabs were active primarily at night. The researchers set up four treatments: control (C) with 24 hour access to consumers, experimental (E) with 24 hour exclusion of consumers, day-only exclusion (D) and night-only exclusion (N).  The researchers expected that the day-only exclusion treatments would selectively exclude guppies, while night-only exclusion would selectively exclude crabs. They then placed the leaf packs into each exclosure, turned on the current, and ran the experiment for 29 days.  Five replicates of each treatment were done above and below the waterfalls.


Electric exclosures established in the stream. Leaf packs were tied to the copper frame and periodically harvested over the 29 days of the experiment. Rectangular tiles shown in treatment frames were part of a separate study. Credit: Troy N. Simon.

We’re finally ready for some data.  The two graphs on the left represent the downstream reach below the waterfalls, where killifish, crabs and guppies are naturally present (KCG).  The two graphs on the right represent the upstream reach above the falls, where only killifish and crabs are naturally present.  There was no evidence in the downstream reach that excluding consumers influenced decomposition rates (top left graph).  However, when consumers were present (C treatment) in the upstream reach, decomposition rates were reduced by about 40% in comparison to treatments when consumers were partially (D and N) or completely (E) excluded (top right graph).


Mean (+SE) for (a,b) decay rate of Cecropia peltata leaves (percentage of mass lost per day) and (c,d)  biomass of Phylloicus hansoni (milligrams of dry mass per gram of Cecropia). 24-hour treatments allow full macroconsumer access [control (C)] or completely exclude macroconsumers [electric (E)]. Twelve-hour treatments exclude access to either diurnally active [day (D)] or nocturnally active [night (N)] macroconsumers. Different letters above the bars indicate statistically significant differences between the treatments.

The two bottom graphs above look at the biomass of the caddisfly, Phylloicus hansoni, which was easily the most abundant macroinvertebrate within the leaf packs.  There was no significant difference in caddisfly abundance below the waterfall regardless of treatment (bottom left graph above).  Above the waterfalls, caddisfly abundance was severely depressed in the controls (C) where killifish were free to feed on them (bottom right graph).

One piece of evidence that killifish ate caddisflies and depressed their abundance was that surviving caddisflies were much smaller in the control treatment leaf packs than in any of the experimental treatment leaf packs.  This suggests that  killifish with unimpeded access to caddisflies were picking off the largest individuals.


Mean (+SE) caddisfly length in mm (y-axis) for each treatment, 

These findings support the hypothesis that a trophic cascade prevails in the KC reach, in which killifish eat caddisflies, thereby slowing down decomposition. But in the KCG reach, guppies eat killifish eggs and larvae and compete with them for resources, thereby reducing killifish abundance, and interfering with the establishment of a trophic cascade.

Lastly, the researchers explored whether the same trophic cascade operated in upper reaches but not in lower reaches of other streams in the area. Surveys of six streams indicate a definite “yes” answer, with Cecropia decay rate and caddisfly biomass much lower in the upper reaches.


(Top) Mean (+SE) decay rate for Cecropia peltata
leaves (percentage of mass lost per day) and (b) caddisfly biomass (milligrams of dry mass per gram of Cecropia) in the landscape study (n = 6 streams). Different letters above bars indicate statistically significant differences  between treatments.

Surveys of each stream indicated that killifish were much more abundant in the upper reaches where guppies were not found, but guppies were much more prevalent in the lower reaches than were killifish.  These findings indicate that this detrital-based trophic cascade, with killifish eating caddisflies and thereby slowing down decomposition, is a general pattern in the upper reaches of these tropical streams.  However, Simon and his colleagues caution us that different streams will have different groups of organisms playing different ecological roles.  Thus the presence of detrital-based trophic cascades will depend on the particulars of which species are present and how abundant they are in a particular stream.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Simon, T. N., A. J. Binderup, A. S. Flecker, J. F. Gilliam, M. C. Marshall, S. A. Thomas, J. Travis, D. N. Reznick, and C. M. Pringle. 2019. Landscape patterns in top-down control of decomposition: omnivory disrupts a tropical detrital-based trophic cascade. Ecology 100(7):e02723. 10.1002/ecy.2723. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.