Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Marine Science

Major Professor

Ernst B. Peebles


food web, isoscape, light attenuation, photosynthetic fractionation, stable isotopes


Consumers in marine and estuarine environments have a strong reliance on planktonic and benthic primary production. These two basal resources form the foundation of aquatic food webs, yet the abundance of phytoplankton and benthic algae are frequently inversely related due to competition for light and nutrients. As a result, optimal habitats for benthic and planktonic consumers vary spatially and temporally. To investigate these trends, three studies were conducted focusing on light attenuation and basal resources in a bay, river, and on a continental shelf.

δ13C and δ15N stable isotopes can be used as endogenous tracers to determine both the trophic level and basal resource use of consumers. δ13C values of primary producers are determined by the isotopic values of available CO2 and by the degree of photosynthetic fractionation (εp) that occurs during photosynthesis. εp by aquatic algae is greater in high CO2concentrations, high light, during slow growth rates, and for cells with a small surface area to volume ratio.

Interaction among these parameters complicates prediction of algal εp in a natural setting, prompting the investigation as to which factors would impact εp and δ13C in a dynamic estuary. Community-level fractionation of an assemblage of filamentous algae, pennate diatoms, and centric diatoms grown on glass plates was found to be positively correlated with photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), resulting in higher δ13C values for organic matter in low-light conditions. These results support the concept that the low-light benthic environment may contribute to the widely observed phenomenon of ~5 / higher δ13C values in benthic algae compared to phytoplankton.

Spatial and temporal variability in the isotopic baseline provides evidence of shifting biogeochemical controls on primary production. The West Florida Shelf in the eastern Gulf of Mexico transitions from a eutrophic ecosystem near the Mississippi River to an oligotrophic ecosystem in offshore continental shelf waters. Spatiotemporal variability in the δ13C and δ15N signatures of primary producers and fish populations were examined along this gradient. Muscle δ15N from three widely distributed fish species exhibited strong longitudinal isotopic gradients that coincided with the principal trophic gradient, whereas δ13C values of fish muscle and benthic algae were correlated with depth. The three fish species had relatively high site fidelity, as isotopic gradients were consistent between seasons and years. Isotopic mixing models showed all three fish species had a significant reliance on benthic algae as a basal resource.

Dynamic models of the West Florida Shelf isotopic baseline were created using spatial data and satellite-derived water quality characteristics as predictors. Models were constructed using data from three fish species and tested on four other species to determine if the models could be extrapolated to new taxa. Both dynamic and static δ15N models had similar predictive capabilities, indicating a fairly stable δ15N baseline. The satellite-derived dynamic variables explained more variation in baseline δ13C than static spatial descriptors.

Planktonic primary production can directly impact benthic food chains through phytoplankton deposition. A novel phytoplankton deposition detection method that combined water-column and benthic fluorometry with surficial sediment sampling was developed and assessed in a two-year study of the Caloosahatchee River estuary. Classifications based upon this detection method showed phytoplankton deposition dominated the upstream region and deposition was associated with reduced dissolved oxygen concentrations. Benthic algae dominated in downstream regions, particularly during low freshwater flow conditions when light absorption by colored dissolved organic matter was low.

This same Caloosahatchee River estuary study was used to determine if zooplankton aggregate in regions with optimal basal resource availability. The isopod Edotia triloba was found to associate with chlorophyll peaks when freshwater velocity was constant. Chlorophyll peaks were offset downstream or upstream from isopod aggregations when freshwater flow was accelerating or decelerating, implying that phytoplankton and isopods have different response times to changes in flow.

Temporal and spatial fluctuations in water quality and primary production introduce instability to aquatic consumers that primarily rely on one basal resource. The current global trends in eutrophication and increasing planktonic production are likely to be a liability for benthic consumers due to increased benthic hypoxia and light attenuation. The results of these studies indicate that both the location of consumers and their isotopic signatures can be impacted by factors, such as light attenuation, that control benthic and planktonic primary production.