Subsystems, flowpaths, and the spatial variability of nitrogen in a fluvial ecosystem

David Bruce Lewis, Nancy Grimm, Tamara K. Harms, John D. Schade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Nutrient dynamics in rivers affect biogeochemical fluxes from land to oceans and the atmosphere. Fluvial ecosystems are thus important environments for understanding spatial variability in nutrient concentrations. At the San Pedro River in semi-arid Arizona, USA, we investigated how variability in dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) was regulated by subsystem type and hydrological flowpaths. The three subsystems we compared were the riparian zone, parafluvial (gravel bar) zone, and surface stream. DIN concentration was greater in the riparian zone than in the surface stream, suggesting that the riparian zone retains DIN and is a source of N for the surface stream. Parafluvial zones were too variable to generalize how they regulate DIN. Our hypothesis that subsystem type regulates DIN oxidation was too simple. The riparian and parafluvial zones host a mosaic of oxidizing and reducing conditions, as they exhibited highly variable ammonium to nitrate (NH 4 +:NO 3 - ) ratios. Surface stream DIN was dominated by NO 3 - . Along a subsurface flowpath in the riparian zone, we did not observe spatial covariation among the N forms and transformations involved in mineralization. We also compared spatial variability in solute concentrations between flowpaths and non-flowpath reference areas. Our mixed results suggest that spatial variability is regulated in part by flowpaths, but also by solute-specific processing length along a flowpath. To understand the distribution of N in fluvial ecosystems, subsystem type and flowpaths are readily discernable guides, but they should be coupled with other mechanistic factors such as biota and soil type.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)911-924
Number of pages14
JournalLandscape Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jul 2007


  • Biogeochemistry
  • Dissolved oxygen
  • Ecosystem function
  • Fluvial ecosystem
  • Flux
  • Heterogeneity
  • Landscape
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Nutrient retention
  • Southwest
  • Stream

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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