Coastal and Marine Nitrogen Sources Shift Isotopic Baselines in Pelagic Food Webs of the Gulf of Mexico



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Upwelling, atmospheric nitrogen (N2) fixation by cyanobacteria, and freshwater inputs from the Mississippi River system have been shown to stimulate new production by alleviating nitrogen (N) limitation in the northern Gulf of Mexico (GoM). Stable carbon (delta13C) and nitrogen (delta15N) isotopes were used to investigate whether these sources are utilized differentially by coastal and marine pelagic food webs. Particulate organic matter (POM), Trichodesmium, and zooplankton were collected from the Mississippi River plume and Loop Current (LC) which were detected using remote sensing data. Stable isotope values were used to separate coastal and marine water masses and environmental data (salinity, nutrient and pigment concentrations) allowed me to relate variability to the degree of freshwater influence. Published food web data from these two environments were then assessed to establish whether isotopic baseline shifts observed in our data occur at an ecosystem level.

Isotope values of the POM and zooplankton were found to be significantly different between coastal and marine water masses. This was not the case for Trichodesmium whose isotope values were not significantly different between the two water masses. We found that marine water masses (sal > 35) exhibited silicate concentrations, cyanobacterial pigments and DIN: P that suggest an increased abundance of diazotrophs. In contrast, coastal water masses (sal < 35) exhibited increased diatom pigments and molar C:N indicating terrestrial sources fuel phytoplankton production. When published food web data were compared, we found producer and consumer delta15N values were enriched in the coastal compared to the marine environments.

This work suggests that differences in delta15N values within my data set and published data reflect a shift in the use of biologically available N where higher trophic levels are sustained by diazotrophic activity in marine environments versus those supported by terrestrial sources in coastal ones. Food webs that have been constructed without considering Trichodesmium as a significant source of organic matter in the GoM should be reconsidered. By re-evaluating published data, this research gives insight into the early life ecology of larval fishes and works to help answer questions about the structure and function of pelagic food webs.