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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 182:37-54 (1999)  -  doi:10.3354/meps182037

Macrofaunal processing of phytodetritus at two sites on the Carolina margin: in situ experiments using 13C-labeled diatoms

L. A. Levin1,*, N. E. Blair2, C. M. Martin1, D. J. DeMaster2, G. Plaia2, C. J. Thomas2

1Marine Life Research Group, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California 92093-0218, USA
2Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695-8208, USA

ABSTRACT: Tracer experiments using 13C-labeled diatoms Thalassiosira pseudonana were carried out at two 850 m sites (I off Cape Fear and III off Cape Hatteras) on the North Carolina, USA, slope to examine patterns of macrofaunal consumption of fresh phytodetritus. Experiments examined the influence of taxon, feeding mode, body size and vertical position within the sediment column on access to surficial organic matter. δ13C measurements were made on macrofaunal metazoans and agglutinating protozoans from background sediments and from sediment plots in which 13C-labeled diatoms were deposited and then sampled 0.3 h, 1 to 1.5 d, 3 mo and 14 mo later. Significant between-site differences were observed in background δ13C signatures of sediments, metazoans, and large, agglutinating protozoans, with values 2 to 3o/oo lower at Site III than at Site I. Background δ13C signatures also varied as a function of taxon and of vertical position in the sediment column at Site III. The background δ13C value of carnivores was higher than that of surface-deposit feeders among Site I annelids, but no annelid feeding-group differences were observed at Site III. δ13C data from short-term (1 to 1.5 d) experiments revealed rapid diatom ingestion, primarily by agglutinated protozoans and annelids at Site I and mainly by annelids at Site III. Selective feeding on diatoms was exhibited by paraonid polychaetes, especially Aricidea spp. Exceptionally high uptake and retention of diatom C also was observed in the maldanid Praxillella sp., the nereid Ceratocephale sp. and several other surface-deposit feeding polychaetes. After 14 mo, little of the diatom 13C remained at Site III, but high concentrations of the tracer were present in annelids and agglutinating protozoans at Site I. At both sites, non-annelid metazoans and subsurface-deposit feeding annelids exhibited the least uptake and retention of diatom C. Our hypotheses that large-bodied taxa and shallow-dwelling infauna should have greatest access to freshly deposited organic matter were not borne out. Some small, deep-dwelling taxa acquired label more readily than large or near-surface forms. Differences in tracer fates between sites reflected greater vertical mixing at Site III. These results indicate heterogeneity in benthic processes along the Carolina margin, but suggest that labile organic matter is consumed quickly at both sites. Because most of the taxa found to consume freshly deposited diatoms in these experiments are typical of bathyal settings, we infer that phytodetritus reaching the seabed in margin environments is rapidly processed by protozoan and metazoan components of the benthic fauna.

KEY WORDS: Agglutinated protozoa · Bioturbation · δ13C · Deposit feeding · Continental slope · Macrofauna · Polychaete · Aricidea · Praxillella · Ceratocephale · Tracer

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