The influence of hypercapnia and macrofauna on sediment nutrient flux – will ocean acidification affect nutrient exchange?

Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the concomitant increased uptake of this by the oceans is resulting in hypercapnia-related reduction of ocean pH. Research focussed on the direct effects of these physicochemical changes on marine invertebrates has begun to improve our understanding of impacts at the level of individual physiologies. However, CO2-related impairment of organisms’ contribution to ecological or ecosystem processes has barely been addressed. The burrowing ophiuroid Amphiura filiformis, which has a physiology that makes it susceptible to reduced pH, plays a key role in sediment nutrient cycling by mixing and irrigating the sediment, a process known as bioturbation. Here we investigate the role of A. filiformis in modifying nutrient flux rates across the sediment-water boundary and the impact of CO2-related acidification on this process. A 40 day exposure study was conducted under predicted pH scenarios from the years 2100 (pH 7.7) and 2300 (pH 7.3), plus an additional treatment of pH 6.8. This study demonstrated strong relationships between A. filiformis density and cycling of some nutrients; A. filiformis activity increases the sediment uptake of phosphate and the release of nitrite and nitrate. No relationship between A. filiformis density and the flux of ammonium or silicate were observed. Results also indicated that, within the timescale of this experiment, effects at the individual bioturbator level appear not to translate into reduced ecosystem influence. Rather the effect of hypercapnia and lowered pH on bacteria and microphytobenthos may have been of greater significance in understanding the changes to nutrient fluxes seen here. However, long term survival of key bioturbating species is far from assured and changes in both bioturbation and microbial processes could alter key biogeochemical processes in future, more acidic oceans.

Wood H. L., Widdicombe S. & Spicer J. I., 2009. The influence of hypercapnia and macrofauna on sediment nutrient flux – will ocean acidification affect nutrient exchange? Biogeosciences Discussions 6:2387-2413. Article.

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