The saturation of N cycling in Central Plains streams: 15N experiments across a broad gradient of nitrate concentrations

Jonathan M. O'Brien, Walter K. Dodds, Kymberly C. Wilson, Justin N. Murdock, Jessica Eichmiller

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We conducted 15NO 3 - stable isotope tracer releases in nine streams with varied intensities and types of human impacts in the upstream watershed to measure nitrate (NO 3 - ) cycling dynamics. Mean ambient NO 3 - concentrations of the streams ranged from 0.9 to 21,000 μg l-1 NO 3 - -N. Major N-transforming processes, including uptake, nitrification, and denitrification, all increased approximately two to three orders of magnitude along the same gradient. Despite increases in transformation rates, the efficiency with which stream biota utilized available NO 3 - -decreased along the gradient of increasing NO 3 - . Observed functional relationships of biological N transformations (uptake and nitrification) with NO 3 - concentration did not support a 1st order model and did not show signs of Michaelis-Menten type saturation. The empirical relationship was best described by a Efficiency Loss model, in which log-transformed rates (uptake and nitrification) increase with log-transformed nitrate concentration with a slope less than one. Denitrification increased linearly across the gradient of NO 3 - concentrations, but only accounted for ∼1% of total NO 3 - uptake. On average, 20% of stream water NO 3 - was lost to denitrification per km, but the percentage removed in most streams was <5% km-1. Although the rate of cycling was greater in streams with larger NO 3 - concentrations, the relative proportion of NO 3 - retained per unit length of stream decreased as NO 3 - concentration increased. Due to the rapid rate of NO 3 - turnover, these streams have a great potential for short-term retention of N from the landscape, but the ability to remove N through denitrification is highly variable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)31-49
Number of pages19
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2007
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements We thank Eric Banner, Christa Carlson, Joey Dodds, Katie Gleason, Dolly Gudder, Brian Monser, Rosemary Ramundo, Alyssa Standorf, and Mandy Stone for field and laboratory assistance. We thank the LINX II Research Group for developing the protocols used in this study. We thank Steve Hamilton for providing the protocols and exetainers for dissolved gas analysis, and the subsurface sippers. We also thank Rich Scheibly for his assistance with the transient storage modeling. Dolly Gudder and the LAB aquatic journal club provided helpful comments on this manuscript. The project was funded by the National Science Foundation (project #DEB-0111410) as part of the Lotic Intersite Nitrogen eXperimant (LINX II), Konza LTER, NSF-EPSCOR. This is publication # 06-183–J of the Kansas Agricultural Experimental Station.


  • Denitrification
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrification
  • Saturation
  • Stream
  • Uptake


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