Benthic-pelagic nutrient cycling in shallow lakes : investigating the functional role of benthic microalgae
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Microbes, living on the boundary between the sediment and the water-column in lakes, can play a pivotal role in governing the magnitude and frequency of nutrient cycling. The purpose of this research was to focus on the role of benthic microalgae in regulating such processes and to identify spatial and temporal characteristics in their function. Approaches included the quantification of sediment nutrient concentrations (particularly P fractionation), estimates of equilibrium phosphate concentrations (EPC0) (resuspended and undisturbed sediment estimates), and assessment of the benthic microalgal community composition, biostabilisation capacity, and its ability to regulate diffusive-nutrient flux. This thesis highlighted the importance of biological regulation of benthic/pelagic nutrient cycling, especially the role of benthic microautotrophs. Release sensitive sediment-P fractions were observed to be highly variable (both with depth and season) and correlated well with indicators of benthic photosynthesis (e.g. DO, chlorophyll, pH). Understanding the seasonality of whole-system P partitioning can enhance future lake management programmes. EPC0 estimates were significantly higher during undisturbed as opposed to disturbed sediment conditions. Epipelon constituted < 17 % of the total sediment chlorophyll signal and was highest in the clearer winter months and at intermediate depths at which a trade off between wind-induced habitat disturbance and light limitation existed. In intact core experiments, the benthic microalgal community significantly reduced the diffusive nutrient (especially PO₄-P and SiO₂) flux. NH₄ -N release was highest under light conditions at high temperatures. The mechanisms for regulation included direct uptake, photosynthetic oxygenation of the sediment surface, and regulation of nitrification/denitrification processes. Sediment stability increased with colloidal carbohydrate concentration (extruded by benthic microbes) at 4.1 m water-depth but not at 2.1 m overlying water depth, probably indicating the role of habitat disturbance in shallow areas acting to reduce epipelic production. Additionally, in an ecosystem comparison, the nature and extent of the biotic mediation of sediment stability varied between freshwater and estuarine ecosystems.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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