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Keywords:

  • nitrogen;
  • periphyton;
  • phosphorus;
  • primary producers;
  • Redfield ratio

Summary

1. Anthropogenic impacts on the biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) affect natural ecosystems worldwide. Modelling is required to predict where and when these key nutrients limit primary production in freshwaters.

2. We reviewed 382 nutrient-enrichment experiments to examine which factors promote limitation of microphytobenthos biomass by N or P in streams and rivers. Using regression models, we examined whether the response of microphytobenthos biomass to N and P additions could be predicted by the absolute N and P concentrations in the water, the water N:P ratio or a combination of the two.

3. The absolute N concentration in the water was the best predictor of the magnitude of the response of microphytobenthos biomass to N additions. In comparison, the N:P ratio was the best predictor of whether or not N was limiting. However, predictions were uncertain except at extreme N:P ratios <1 : 1 and >100 : 1.

4. The absolute P concentration in the water was the best predictor of the magnitude of the response of microphytobenthos biomass to P additions. Neither the absolute nor the relative N and P concentrations predicted whether or not P was limiting.

5. The absolute and the relative N and P water concentrations contribute significant and complementary insights into the responses of microphytobenthos biomass to nutrient enrichment in running waters. However, ability to predict nutrient limitation from these concentrations is constrained by substantial error in the models. In the future, the prediction ability of models of nutrient limitation might be improved by focussing on regional scales and accounting for additional factors such as light and disturbance.