Benthic Algal Production across Lake Size Gradients: Interactions among Morphometry, Nutrients, and Light

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Attached algae play a minor role in conceptual and empirical models of lake ecosystem function but paradoxically form the energetic base of food webs that support a wide variety of fishes. To explore the apparent mismatch between perceived limits on contributions of periphyton to whole-lake primary production and its importance to consumers, we modeled the contribution of periphyton to whole-ecosystem primary production across lake size, shape, and nutrient gradients. The distribution of available benthic habitat for periphyton is influenced by the ratio of mean depth to maximum depth (DR = z/ z(max)). We modeled total phytoplankton production from water-column nutrient availability, z, and light. Periphyton production was a function of light-saturated photosynthesis (BPmax) and light availability at depth. The model demonstrated that depth ratio (DR) and light attenuation strongly determined the maximum possible contribution of benthic algae to lake production, and the benthic proportion of whole-lake primary production (BPf) declined with increasing nutrients. Shallow lakes (z < or =5 m) were insensitive to DR and were dominated by either benthic or pelagic primary productivity depending on trophic status. Moderately deep oligotrophic lakes had substantial contributions by benthic primary productivity at low depth ratios and when maximum benthic photosynthesis was moderate or high. Extremely large, deep lakes always had low fractional contributions of benthic primary production. An analysis of the world's largest lakes showed that the shapes of natural lakes shift increasingly toward lower depth ratios with increasing depth, maximizing the potential importance of littoral primary production in large-lake food webs. The repeatedly demonstrated importance of periphyton to lake food webs may reflect the combination of low depth ratios and high light penetration characteristic of large, oligotrophic lakes that in turn lead to substantial contributions of periphyton to autochthonous production.



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