Nutrient cycling by fish supports relatively more primary production as lake productivity increases

Michael J. Vanni, Anna M. Bowling, Elizabeth M. Dickman, R. Scott Hale, Karen A. Higgins, Martin J. Horgan, Lesley B. Knoll, William H. Renwick, Roy A. Stein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

118 Scopus citations


Animals can be important in nutrient cycling in particular ecosystems, but few studies have examined how this importance varies along environmental gradients. In this study we quantified the nutrient cycling role of an abundant detritivorous fish species, the gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum), in reservoir ecosystems along a gradient of ecosystem productivity. Gizzard shad feed mostly on sediment detritus and excrete sediment-derived nutrients into the water column, thereby mediating a cross-habitat translocation of nutrients to phytoplankton. We quantified nitrogen and phosphorus cycling (excretion) rates of gizzard shad, as well as nutrient demand by phytoplankton, in seven lakes over a four-year period (16 lake-years). The lakes span a gradient of watershed land use (the relative amounts of land used for agriculture vs. forest) and productivity. As the watersheds of these lakes became increasingly dominated by agricultural land, primary production rates, lake trophic state indicators (total phosphorus and chlorophyll concentrations), and nutrient flux through gizzard shad populations all increased. Nutrient cycling by gizzard shad supported a substantial proportion of primary production in these ecosystems, and this proportion increased as watershed agriculture (and ecosystem productivity) increased. In the four productive lakes with agricultural watersheds (>78% agricultural land), gizzard shad supported on average 51% of phytoplankton primary production (range 27-67%). In contrast, in the three relatively unproductive lakes in forested or mixed-land-use watersheds (>47% forest, <52% agricultural land), gizzard shad supported 18% of primary production (range 14-23%). Thus, along a gradient of forested to agricultural landscapes, both watershed nutrient inputs and nutrient translocation by gizzard shad increase, but our data indicate that the importance of nutrient translocation by gizzard shad increases more rapidly. Our results therefore support the hypothesis that watersheds and gizzard shad jointly regulate primary production in reservoir ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1696-1709
Number of pages14
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2006


  • Agricultural land use vs. forest watersheds
  • Dorosoma cepedianum
  • Gizzard shad
  • Lakes and reservoirs
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus flux
  • Nutrient limitation and cycling
  • Primary productivity


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