1. Invertebrates and aquatic plants often play a key role in biogeochemical processes occurring at the water–sediment interface of aquatic ecosystems. However, few studies have investigated the respective influences of plants and bioturbating animals on ecological processes (nutrient fluxes, benthic oxygen uptake, microbial activities) occurring in freshwater sediments.
2. We developed a laboratory experiment in aquaria to quantify the effects of (i) one invertebrate acting as a bioturbator (Tubifex tubifex); (ii) one submersed plant with a high sediment-oxygenating potential (Myriophyllum spicatum) and (iii) one submersed plant with a low sediment-oxygenating potential (Elodea canadensis).
3. The tubificid worms significantly increased the fluxes of nitrogen at the water–sediment interface (influx of nitrate, efflux of ammonium), whereas the two plant species did not have significant influences on these nitrogen fluxes. The differences in nitrogen fluxes between tubificid worms and plants were probably due to the bioirrigation process caused by T. tubifex, which increased water exchanges at the water–sediment interface. Tubifex tubifex and M. spicatum produced comparable reductions of nutrient concentrations in pore water and comparable stimulations of benthic oxygen uptake and microbial communities (percentages of active eubacteria and hydrolytic activity) whereas E. canadensis had a very weak influence on these variables. These differences between the two plants were due to their contrasting abilities to increase oxygen in sediments by radial oxygen losses (release of oxygen from roots).
4. Our study suggests that the bioirrigation process and radial oxygen loss are major functional traits affecting biogeochemical functioning at the water–sediment interface of wetlands.