The role of cyanobacteria in Southern California salt marsh food webs


Carolyn A. Currin, Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, National Ocean Service, NOAA Beaufort, NC 28516, USA.


Understanding wetland food webs is critical for effective habitat management, restoration and conservation. Microalgae are recognized as key food sources for marsh invertebrates but the importance of different groups under various conditions is rarely examined. We tested the hypothesis that faunal utilization of microalgae, and cyanobacteria in particular, is significant in Southern California created and natural salt marshes but varies with habitat type (creek bank versus marsh interior) and season (spring versus autumn). We used stable isotope analysis and mixing models (IsoSource) to compare food webs in adjacent young (created) and mature (natural) salt marshes. Isotopic values of some primary producers, macrofauna, epifauna, and fish demonstrated significant differences between the adjacent salt marshes. δ13C and δ34S values of the benthic microalgal community varied with taxonomic composition (diatoms versus cyanobacteria) and to a lesser extent with season. Depleted δ15N values of benthic diatoms and macroalgae indicated that N2 fixed within algal mats was recycled within the benthic algal community. Marsh fauna, including most major macrofauna taxal, Cerithidea, and Fundulus, also exhibited seasonal differences in isotopic composition, and Cerithidea and selected macrofauna (oligochaetes, polychaetes) from the marsh interior were more enriched in 13C and depleted in 15N than those from the creek bank. In the young marsh, the cyanobacteria contributed a minimum of 17–100% of the primary production in food webs supporting macrofauna, and cyanobacteria contributed at least 40% of the primary production included in Cerithidea and Fundulus food webs. A wider range of primary producers contributed to food webs in the mature marsh. Cyanobacteria were a greater source of trophic support for macrofauna from the marsh interior than the creek bank, whereas Spartina was a more important food source for creek bank macrofauna in both marshes. Insect larvae largely consumed cyanobacteria, whereas polychaetes exhibited greater utilization of Spartina. Phytoplankton was the primary food resource for mussels in both marshes. Although the spatial and temporal complexity of food webs has traditionally been collapsed into the study of relatively simplified food webs, isotope signatures reveal fine-scale patterns in food web structure that may be used to make more accurate assessments of ecosystem state. Accurate interpretation of marsh trophic structure using natural abundance stable isotopes requires fine-scale resolution in space and time, a large number of samples, and a high level of taxonomic resolution.