MEPS 350:19-27 (2007)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps07152

Seasonal discrepancies in denitrification measured by isotope pairing and N2:Ar techniques

Angus J. P. Ferguson1,2, Bradley D. Eyre1,*

1Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry, Southern Cross University, PO Box 157, Lismore, New South Wales 2480, Australia
2Present address: Aquatic Biogeochemical and Ecological Research, PO Box 409, Brunswick Heads, New South Wales 2483, Australia
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Isotope pairing (IP) and N2:Ar techniques for measuring sediment denitrification were compared in muddy sediments in a shallow sub-tropical embayment. At a concentration of 100 µM 15NO3 (our experimental conditions), IP greatly underestimated denitrification, compared to N2:Ar, in low-respiration sediments subject to bioturbation, where denitrification produced via coupled nitrification-denitrification (Dn) dominates overall denitrification. Consistent with this underestimation was the higher N2 flux measured using N2:Ar ratios, accounting for more of the stochimetrically predicted N mineralisation. We suggest that this underestimation is primarily due to non-homogenous mixing of the added 15NO3 with the endogenous 14NO3 in the sediment, associated with differentials in the rate of diffusion of 15NO3 across mucus linings in burrow structures versus rates of 14NO3 supply from nitrifiers in the burrow walls. Strong support for this hypothesis was provided by the relationship between the methods discrepancy and polychaete biomass (r2 = 0.99; p = 0.001), and the almost complete removal of the methods discrepancy when the upper heterogenous sediment layer that contained the burrow structures was experimentally removed. Due to a significant increase in potential denitrification sites in association with burrow structures, this effect can potentially cause a large underestimation of denitrification (up to 85%) using the IP technique. Our data show no benefit in longer pre-incubation times, suggesting that this effect may represent a fundamental limitation of the IP method in the sediments of oligotrophic (low carbon loading) systems. As such, the N2:Ar flux technique represents a more realistic estimation of net denitrification in sediments with low organic carbon contents and low respiration rates and significant bioturbation. Most importantly, the present study also demonstrated that methodological comparisons need to be made over a range of environmental conditions.


KEY WORDS: Methods comparison · Denitrification · N2:Ar · Isotope pairing · Sediments · Benthic microalgae · Macrofauna · Bioturbation


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Cite this article as: Ferguson AJP, Eyre BD (2007) Seasonal discrepancies in denitrification measured by isotope pairing and N2:Ar techniques. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 350:19-27. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps07152

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