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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 207:53-68 (2000)  -  doi:10.3354/meps207053

Formation, degradation, and mass:volume ratios of detritus derived from decaying phytoplankton

P. G. Verity*, S. C. Williams, Y. Hong

Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, 10 Ocean Science Circle, Savannah, Georgia 31411, USA

ABSTRACT: The mass of non-living particulate organic matter, or detritus, often exceeds that of living plankton in pelagic environments; in coastal waters the difference can be 10-fold. Relatively little is known about the dynamics of this pool of organic matter because it has not been previously possible to accurately determine its magnitude. A recent approach utilizing fluorescence microscopy (Verity et al. 1996) provided estimates of the volume of detritus. Here, laboratory experiments were conducted to estimate carbon:volume (C:V) and nitrogen:volume (N:V) conversion ratios of detritus formed by 2 phytoplankton species when incubated in darkness in the presence of bacteria. The volume of detritus was measured directly, along with total particulate organic carbon (POC) and nitrogen (PON), and that contained in the associated phytoplankton and bacterial communities. Detrital carbon and nitrogen were estimated by difference and compared to detrital volume, from which conversion factors were calculated. The physiological state of the bacteria was assessed using a recently developed fluorescent stain and molecular probe protocol (Williams et al. 1998). The 2 phytoplankton cultures were degraded at different rates. At the times of peak bacterial abundances, most of the remaining bulk POC and PON was in the form of bacteria cells. Conversion efficiencies, however, were only 8 to 9% (carbon) and 10 to 11% (nitrogen). The fraction of the bacterial community composed of active cells was inversely related to the C:N ratio of the bulk particulate matter in both cultures, although with different absolute values. C:N ratios of detritus, distinct from surrounding bacteria and phytoplankton, were typically 35 to 50 but varied during the 56 d incubations because bacteria selectively degraded PON compared to POC. C:V and N:V ratios were typically 0.09 to 0.11 and 0.002 to 0.004 pg µm-3 in fresh detritus, respectively, and ratios declined as the detritus degraded in the presence of bacteria. Mean C:V and N:V ratios were 0.05 to 0.11 and 0.0014 to 0.0031, respectively. These ratios indicate that detritus derived from phytoplankton cultures contains reduced densities of organic carbon and nitrogen compared to living plankton. They provide the means to directly estimate the carbon and nitrogen content of natural detritus, although the C:V and N:V ratios of cultures need to be compared to those estimated from natural plankton communities.

KEY WORDS: Detritus · Phytoplankton · Bacteria · Carbon:volume · Nitrogen:volume · Physiological state

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