Nitrogen Isotopic Records of Terrestrial Pollution Encoded in Floridian and Bahamian Gorgonian Corals
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Stable nitrogen isotope (delta(15)N) analysis has proven an effective "fingerprint" of sewage contamination in coral reef environments; however, short-term variability in nitrogen cycling and isotopic fractionation may obscure long-term trends. Here, we examine delta(15)N signatures in the organic endoskeletons of long-lived (20-40 years) gorgonian corals. Specimens were collected from relatively pristine reefs off Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas, and from reefs off southeast Florida heavily impacted by multiple sources of anthropogenic nitrogen. The delta(15)N of the most recently grown skeleton (branch tips) ranged from +2 to +3 per thousand at Green Turtle Cay, and +4.5 to +10 per thousand off Florida. These values closely match the delta(15)N of macroalgae collected from the same locations, indicating that gorgonian corals are isotopically similar to primary producers, and therefore suitable for assessing sources of dissolved inorganic nitrogen. Differences in the delta(15)N between younger and older skeleton indicated an overall decline of -0.34 +/- 0.06 per thousand (1 s.e) over the last 20 - 40 years at Green Turtle Cay, reflecting a possible increase in nitrogen fixation and/or atmospheric deposition of anthropogenic nitrogen. Off southeast Florida, there was an overall increase in delta(15)N over the same time period, reflecting increasing wastewater discharges from the rapidly growing population. These results highlight the usefulness of delta(15)N recorded in gorgonians and other long-lived organisms in assessing spatiotemporal patterns of nitrogen sources to coastal marine environments.
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