1. Nutrient spiralling provides a conceptual framework and a whole-system approach to investigate ecosystem responses to environmental changes. We use spiralling metrics to examine how the coupling of nitrogen and phosphorus uptake varies between streams dominated by either heterotrophic (i.e. bacteria-dominated) or autotrophic (algal-dominated) microbial communities.
2. Algae generally exhibit greater capacity to store nutrients than bacteria because of differences in cellular structures. These differences led us to hypothesise that the uptake of N and P in heterotrophic ecosystems should have reduced stoichiometric variation in response to changes in supply N : P compared to autotrophic ecosystems when assimilation dominates nutrient uptake.
3. To test this hypothesis, we used an array of serial nutrient additions in several streams in the South Fork Eel River watershed in Northern California. In one set of experiments, N and P were added alone and simultaneously in separate experiments to two small, heterotrophic streams to assess uptake rates and interactions between nutrient cycles. In a second set of experiments, N and P were added simultaneously at a range of N : P in one heterotrophic and one autotrophic stream to assess differences in uptake responses to changes in supply N : P.
4. Results of these experiments suggest two important conclusions. First, increased N supply significantly shortened P uptake lengths, while P addition had little impact on N uptake in both streams, indicating that uptake of non-limiting nutrients is tightly coupled to the availability of the limiting element. Second, changes in P uptake and uptake ratios (UN : UP) with increased supply N : P supported our hypothesis that heterotrophic streams are more homeostatic in their responses to changes in nutrient supply than autotrophic streams, suggesting that physiological controls on nutrient use scale up to influence ecosystem-scale patterns in nutrient cycling.