The utility of growth form for predicting and evaluating aquatic plant nutrient relations

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University of New Brunswick
My dissertation focuses on the role of agricultural nutrient enrichment in structuring aquatic plant communities in Southern Manitoba, Canada, and changes in nutrient cycling resulting from changes in vegetation structure. Built around the “holy grail” framework of community ecology, which describes connections between the environment and ecosystem services or function as mediated by the traits of the biotic community, I explore the linkages between nutrient enrichment and aquatic plants of prairie streams focusing on species growth form (morphology) as a proxy for a suite of co-varying individual traits. I found that plant morphology interacted with environmental factors to determine which growth forms predominated in a stream: plant community shifts from being dominated by species with a submerged morphology to a community dominated by an emergent morphology as nutrient concentrations increase. I show how this pattern allows plant growth form to be used as an indicator of stream nutrient status. Further, I found that plants with similar growth forms share similar physiological features. Emergent plants have lower tissue nutrient concentrations per unit biomass and thus transfer fewer nutrients per unit biomass from the sediment to the water column than submerged plants. My work also includes a phylogenetic thread that brings novel insight: species at sites with higher nutrients all tend to be clustered in a few branches of the plant phylogeny whereas stream sites with lower nutrients have species from a diverse mixture of phylogenetic lineages. I used plant phylogeny to examine whether evolutionary history is related to tissue nutrient concentration and found the influence is mostly attributable to phenotype. These findings hint at the possibility of alternative stable states for prairie stream vegetation: a high nutrient emergent community and a low nutrient submerged community. These alternative states are comparable to those found in shallow lakes, where high nutrient conditions are dominated by algal growth and bring about turbid water, whereas lower nutrients are characterized by clear water and abundant macrophyte growth. The nutrient transferring functionality of these two vegetation states should also differ, but specific quantities transferred would dependent on the proportion of biomass of each growth form.