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Light limitation of nutrient-poor lake ecosystems


Productivity denotes the rate of biomass synthesis in ecosystems and is a fundamental characteristic that frames ecosystem function and management. Limitation of productivity by nutrient availability is an established paradigm for lake ecosystems1,2,3. Here, we assess the relevance of this paradigm for a majority of the world’s small, nutrient-poor lakes, with different concentrations of coloured organic matter4,5. By comparing small unproductive lakes along a water colour gradient, we show that coloured terrestrial organic matter controls the key process for new biomass synthesis (the benthic primary production) through its effects on light attenuation. We also show that this translates into effects on production and biomass of higher trophic levels (benthic invertebrates and fish). These results are inconsistent with the idea that nutrient supply primarily controls lake productivity, and we propose that a large share of the world’s unproductive lakes, within natural variations of organic carbon and nutrient input, are limited by light and not by nutrients. We anticipate that our result will have implications for understanding lake ecosystem function and responses to environmental change. Catchment export of coloured organic matter is sensitive to short-term natural variability and long-term, large-scale changes, driven by climate and different anthropogenic influences6,7. Consequently, changes in terrestrial carbon cycling will have pronounced effects on most lake ecosystems by mediating changes in light climate and productivity of lakes.

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Figure 1: Fish biomass and yield in temperate lakes.
Figure 2: Production as a function of nutrients.
Figure 3: Fish resource use.
Figure 4: Fish production and biomass as a function of light.


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The study was part of the research environment LEREC (Lake Ecosystem Response to Environmental Change), financially supported by Formas (the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning). We thank the Abisko Scientific Research Station, the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute and the Umeå Marine Sciences Centre for providing PAR data, M. Mörth and J. Johansson for chemical analysis and C. Hein for language editing.

Author Contributions J.K., P.B., L.P. and M.J. contributed to study design. J.K., P.B., J.A. and P.A. contributed to sampling and analysis of data. J.K. and M.J. wrote the paper. All authors commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jan Karlsson.

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Karlsson, J., Byström, P., Ask, J. et al. Light limitation of nutrient-poor lake ecosystems. Nature 460, 506–509 (2009).

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