Effect of periphyton biomass on hydraulic characteristics and nutrient cycling in streams

P. J. Mulholland, A. D. Steinman, E. R. Marzolf, D. R. Hart, D. L. DeAngelis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Scopus citations


The effect of periphyton biomass on hydraulic characteristics and nutrient cycling was studied in laboratory streams with and without snail herbivores. Hydraulic characteristics, such as average water velocity, dispersion coefficients, and relative volume of transient storage zones (zones of stationary water), were quantified by performing short-term injections of a conservative tracer and fitting an advection-dispersion model to the conservative tracer concentration profile downstream from the injection site. Nutrient cycling was quantified by measuring two indices: (1) uptake rate of phosphorus from stream water normalized to gross primary production (GPP), a surrogate measure of total P demand, and (2) turnover rate of phosphorus in the periphyton matrix. These measures indicate the importance of internal cycling (within the periphyton matrix) in meeting the P demands of periphyton. Dense growths of filamentous diatoms and blue-green algae accumulated in the streams with no snails (high-biomass streams), whereas the periphyton communities in streams with snails consisted almost entirely of a thin layer of basal cells of Stigeoclonium sp. (low-biomass streams). Dispersion coefficients were significantly greater and transient storage zones were significantly larger in the high-biomass streams compared to the low-biomass streams. Rates of GPP-normalized P uptake from water and rates of P turnover in periphyton were significantly lower in high biomass than in low biomass periphyton communities, suggesting that a greater fraction of the P demand was met by recycling in the high biomass communities. Increases in streamwater P concentration significantly increased GPP-normalized P uptake in high biomass communities, suggesting diffusion limitation of nutrient transfer from stream water to algal cells in these communities. Our results demonstrate that accumulations of periphyton biomass can alter the hydraulic characteristics of streams, particularly by increasing transient storage zones, and can increase internal nutrient cycling. They suggest a close coupling of hydraulic characteristics and nutrient cycling processes in stream ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)40-47
Number of pages8
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 1 1994


  • Nutrient cycling
  • Stream hydraulics
  • Stream periphyton
  • Transient storage zones

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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