Temporal variation in the importance of a dominant consumer to stream nutrient cycling

N. A. Griffiths, Walter R. Hill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Animal excretion can be a significant nutrient flux within ecosystems, where it supports primary production and facilitates microbial decomposition of organic matter. The effects of excretory products on nutrient cycling have been documented for various species and ecosystems, but temporal variation in these processes is poorly understood. We examined variation in excretion rates of a dominant grazing snail, Elimia clavaeformis, and its contribution to nutrient cycling, over the course of 14 months in a well-studied, low-nutrient stream (Walker Branch, east Tennessee, USA). Biomass-specific excretion rates of ammonium varied over twofold during the study, coinciding with seasonal changes in food availability (measured as gross primary production) and water temperature (multiple linear regression, R 2 = 0.57, P = 0.053). The contribution of ammonium excretion to nutrient cycling varied with seasonal changes in both biological (that is, nutrient uptake rate) and physical (that is, stream flow) variables. On average, ammonium excretion accounted for 58% of stream water ammonium concentrations, 26% of whole-stream nitrogen demand, and 66% of autotrophic nitrogen uptake. Phosphorus excretion by Elimia was contrastingly low throughout the year, supplying only 1% of total dissolved phosphorus concentrations. The high average N:P ratio (89:1) of snail excretion likely exacerbated phosphorus limitation in Walker Branch. To fully characterize animal excretion rates and effects on ecosystem processes, multiple measurements through time are necessary, especially in ecosystems that experience strong seasonality.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1169--1185
Issue number7
StatePublished - Nov 2014


  • INHS
  • snails
  • excretion
  • stream
  • nitrogen
  • nutrient spiraling
  • temporal variation
  • ammonium
  • uptake rate
  • consumer
  • phosphorus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Chemistry


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