Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 870–880
Carbon of terrestrial origin often makes up a significant share of consumer biomass in unproductive lake ecosystems. However, the mechanisms for terrestrial support of lake secondary production are largely unclear. By using a modelling approach, we show that terrestrial export of dissolved labile low molecular weight carbon (LMWC) compounds supported 80% (34–95%), 54% (19–90%) and 23% (7–45%) of the secondary production by bacteria, protozoa and metazoa, respectively, in a 7-km2 boreal lake (conservative to liberal estimates in brackets). Bacterial growth on LMWC was of similar magnitude as that of primary production (PP), and grazing on bacteria effectively channelled the LMWC carbon to higher trophic levels. We suggest that rapid turnover of forest LMWC pools enables continuous export of fresh photosynthates and other labile metabolites to aquatic systems, and that substantial transfer of LMWC from terrestrial sources to lake consumers can occur within a few days. Sequestration of LMWC of terrestrial origin, thus, helps explain high shares of terrestrial carbon in lake organisms and implies that lake food webs can be closely dependent on recent terrestrial PP.