Algal biomass accrual in relation to nutrient availability and limitation along a longitudinal gradient of a karst riverine system


1 USDA-NRCS Field Office, 820 William D. Jones Blvd, Fayetteville, TN 37334, USA.

2 Department of Biology and Center for Biodiversity Studies, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY 42101, USA



Nutrient availability influences growth, productivity, and community structure of primary producers. Nutrient limitation, however, results from a deficiency mainly in nitrogen (N) or phosphorus (P) levels relative to cellular growth needs. Limitation is a function of biotic and abiotic factors, the latter including land-use activities (e.g., agriculture, septic systems) and underlying bedrock features. The purpose of this study was twofold: (1) to assess the relationship between algal biomass and ambient nutrient levels along the longitudinal course of a river through a transition from weak to well-developed underlying karst bedrock and (2) experimentally assess if periphyton was N- or P-limited between weak and well-developed karst reaches. Sestonic and Cladophora biomass (=chlorophyll-a) levels increased sharply along the longitudinal gradient. Cladophora biomass, in particular, was strongly correlated with nitrate levels. In contrast, periphyton biomass (=chlorophyll-a) levels were sporadic and did not display a longitudinal pattern. With the exception of ammonia, individual nutrient levels generally increased longitudinally and were higher in the downstream karst reaches. Total N/total P ratios also increased longitudinally and were >25 throughout the study region, suggesting P limitation. The results of the nutrient limitation studies, however, coupled with high concentrations of both N and P throughout the study reach in excess of eutrophication thresholds, suggest that total nutrients are not limiting within the study region. Overall, Kentucky's upper Green River appears to be a nutrient-enriched, eutrophic system and particularly in the downstream, well-developed karst reaches.