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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 299:123-135 (2005)  -  doi:10.3354/meps299123

Coupled nitrification–denitrification measured in situ in a Spartina alterniflora marsh with a 15NH4+ tracer

M. R. Hamersley1,3,*, B. L. Howes2

1Department of Biology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 45 Water St., Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA
2School for Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts, 706 S. Rodney French Blvd., New Bedford,Massachusetts 02744-1221, USA
3Present address: Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Celsiusstrasse 1, 28359 Bremen, Germany

ABSTRACT: Measurements of N losses by denitrification from saltmarsh sediments have proved difficult because of the importance of plant metabolism and tidal cycles to sediment N cycling. In vitro approaches often do not measure the dominant coupled nitrification–denitrification pathway and/or alter in situ plant growth and redox conditions. We developed an in situ 15NH4+ tracer approach to measure coupled nitrification–denitrification fluxes in an undisturbed New England Spartina alterniflora saltmarsh. The tracer was line-injected into sediments underlying natural S. alterniflora stands and in similar areas receiving long-term N amendment (up to 11.2 mol organic N m–2 yr–1 for 16 to 23 yr), and 15N retention and loss routes were followed for 1 to 5 d. Denitrification losses in unfertilized grass stands ranged from 0.4 to 11.9 mmol N m–2 d–1 (0.77 ± 0.18 mol N m–2 yr–1). Denitrification in unfertilized sediments remained low until late summer, but underwent a ca. 4-fold increase in August and September, although sediment temperatures and respiration rates were high throughout the summer. Plant N uptake may limit the availability of N to support denitrification during the early summer, and denitrification may be released from competition with plant uptake in late summer, when plant growth slows. Denitrification rates in fertilized areas ranged from 22 to 77 mmol N m–2 d–1 (10.5 ± 4.9 mol N m–2 yr–1), and denitrification was likely controlled by the availability of fertilizer N rather than by competition with plants, since N was added in excess of plant demand. Our results emphasize the importance of in situ measurements of denitrification in understanding the dynamics of saltmarsh N cycling.

KEY WORDS: Saltmarsh · Denitrification · Nitrification · 15N · Spartina alterniflora

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