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Ecol Appl. 2009 Jul;19(5):1127-34.

Nitrogen stable isotopes in streams: effects of agricultural sources and transformations.

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  • 1Center for Limnology, University of Wisconsin, 680 N. Park Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA.


The nitrogen stable isotope ratio of biological tissue has been proposed as an indicator of anthropogenic N inputs to aquatic ecosystems, but overlap in the isotopic signatures of various N sources and transformations make definitive attribution of processes difficult. We collected primary consumer invertebrates from streams in agricultural settings in Wisconsin, U.S.A., to evaluate the relative influence of animal manure, inorganic fertilizer, and denitrification on biotic delta15N. Variance in biotic delta15N was explained by inorganic fertilizer inputs and the percentage of wetland land cover in the watershed, but not by animal manure inputs. These results suggest that denitrification of inorganic fertilizer is the primary driver of delta15N variability among the study sites. Comparison with previously collected stream water NO3-N concentrations at the same sites supports the role of denitrification; for a given N application rate, streams with high biotic delta15N had low NO3-N concentrations. The lack of a manure signal in biotic delta15N may be due its high ammonia content, which can be dispersed outside the range of its application by volatilization. Based on our findings and on agricultural census data for the entire United States, inorganic fertilizer is more likely than manure to drive variability in biotic delta15N and to cause excessive nitrogen concentrations in streams.

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