Denitrification in a nitrogen-limited stream ecosystem

Robert M. Holmes, Jeremy B. Jones, Stuart G. Fisher, Nancy Grimm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

207 Scopus citations


Denitrification was measured in hyporheic, parafluvial, and bank sediments of Sycamore Creek, Arizona, a nitrogen-limited Sonoran Desert stream. We used three variations of the acetylene block technique to estimate denitrification rates, and compared these estimates to rates of nitrate production through nitrification. Subsurface sediments of Sycamore Creek are typically well-oxygenated, relatively low in nitrate, and low in organic carbon, and therefore are seemingly unlikely sites of denitrification. However, we found that denitrification potential (C & N amended, anaerobic incubations) was substantial, and even by our conservative estimates (unamended, oxic incubations and field chamber nitrous oxide accumulation), denitrification consumed 5-40% of nitrate produced by nitrification. We expected that denitrification would increase along hyporheic and parafluvial flowpaths as dissolved oxygen declined and nitrate increased. To the contrary, we found that denitrification was generally highest at the upstream ends of subsurface flowpaths where surface water had just entered the subsurface zone. This suggests that denitrifiers may be dependent on the import of surface-derived organic matter, resulting in highest denitrification rate at locations of surface-subsurface hydrologic exchange. Laboratory experiments showed that denitrification in Sycamore Creek sediments was primarily nitrogen limited and secondarily carbon limited, and was temperature dependent. Overall, the quantity of nitrate removed from the Sycamore Creek ecosystem via denitrification is significant given the nitrogen-limited status of this stream.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-146
Number of pages22
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1996


  • Denitrification
  • Hyporheic zone
  • Nitrification
  • Nutrient dynamics
  • Parafluvial zone
  • Stream ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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