Nutrient recycling by fish in streams along a gradient of agricultural land use


Present address: H. F. Wilson, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06511, USA, tel. +1 203 432 0106, fax +1 203 432 9927, e-mail:


Nutrient recycling is an essential ecosystem process provided by animals. In many aquatic systems, fish have been identified as important in ecosystem nutrient recycling; however, this importance can vary widely between systems. The factors controlling intersystem variation in animal-mediated nutrient cycling have rarely been examined and as such it remains unclear what impact human landscape changes will have upon these processes. Here we examined rates of nutrient recycling for temperate stream fish assemblages along a gradient of agricultural land use (proportion cropland in the watershed: 1–59%). We quantified nutrient excretion rates of both ammonium–N (NH4+–N) and phosphate (as soluble reactive phosphate: SRP) for fish assemblages at eight streams in southern Ontario, Canada with species-specific excretion measurements and quantitative assemblage sampling. For both nutrients, total assemblage excretion exhibited a strong positive relationship with riparian cropland. The distance required for fish assemblages to turn over ambient nutrient pools was shorter for cropland systems, indicating that the relative importance of excreted nutrients was higher in these systems. Based on measured uptake rates of NH4+–N in two streams (one higher cropland and one low cropland) and on modeled uptake rates for all streams, the proportion of ecosystem demand that can be satisfied by excretion is generally higher in the more agricultural streams. These patterns appear to be driven largely by disproportionate increases in fish assemblage biomass with increasing stream nutrient concentrations.