Coral Reefs

, Volume 30, Issue 3, pp 709–717 | Cite as

Light-mediated 15N fractionation in Caribbean gorgonian octocorals: implications for pollution monitoring

  • D. M. Baker
  • K. Kim
  • J. P. Andras
  • J. P. Sparks


The stable nitrogen isotope ratio (δ15N) of coral tissue is a useful recorder of anthropogenic pollution in tropical marine ecosystems. However, little is known of the natural environmentally induced fractionations that affect our interpretation of coral δ15N values. In symbiotic scleractinians, light affects metabolic fractionation of N during photosynthesis, which may confound the identification of N pollution between sites of varied depth or turbidity. Given the superiority of octocorals for δ15N studies, our goal was to quantify the effect of light on gorgonian δ15N in the context of monitoring N pollution sources. Using field collections, we show that δ15N declined by 1.4‰ over 20 m depth in two species of gorgonians, the common sea fan, Gorgonia ventalina, and the slimy sea plume, Pseudopterogorgia americana. An 8-week laboratory experiment with P. americana showed that light, not temperature causes this variation, whereby the lowest fractionation of the N source was observed in the highest light treatment. Finally, we used a yearlong reciprocal depth transplant experiment to quantify the time frame over which δ15N changes in G. ventalina as a function of light regime. Over the year, δ15N was unchanged and increased slightly in the deep control colonies and shallow colonies transplanted to the deep site, respectively. Within 6 months, colonies transplanted from deep to shallow became enriched by 0.8‰, mirroring the enrichment observed in the shallow controls, which was likely due to the combined effect of an increase in the source δ15N and reduced fractionation. We conclude that light affects gorgonian δ15N fractionation and should be considered in sampling designs for N pollution monitoring. However, these fractionations are small relative to differences observed between natural and anthropogenic N sources.


Gorgonian δ15Nitrogen Pollution Light Fractionation 



We thank D. Harvell, R. Howarth, and E. Kim for guidance and feedback, and M. Afzal for lab support and sample preparation. Funding was provided by an Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results Fellowship (FP916582) to D.M.B, and small grants through the Biogeochemistry and Environmental Biocomplexity Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program at Cornell University.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • D. M. Baker
    • 1
    • 3
  • K. Kim
    • 2
  • J. P. Andras
    • 1
    • 4
  • J. P. Sparks
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental SciencesAmerican UniversityWashingtonUSA
  3. 3.Geophysical LaboratoryCarnegie Institution of WashingtonWashingtonUSA
  4. 4.Zoologisches Institut, EvolutionsbiologieUniversität BaselBaselSwitzerland

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