Partial coupling and differential regulation of biologically and photochemically labile dissolved organic carbon across boreal aquatic networks
Despite the rapidly increasing volume of research on the biological and photochemical degradation of DOC (dissolved organic carbon) in aquatic environments, little is known of the large-scale patterns in biologically and photochemically degradable DOC (BDOC and PDOC, respectively) in continental watersheds, and on the links that exist between these two key properties that greatly influence the flow of carbon from continents to oceans. Here we explored the patterns in the concentrations and proportions of BDOC and PDOC across hundreds of boreal lakes, rivers and wetlands spanning a large range of system trophic status and terrestrial influence, and compared the drivers of these two reactive pools of DOC at the landscape level. Using standardized incubations of natural waters, we found that the concentrations of BDOC and PDOC covaried across all systems studied but were nevertheless related to different pools of dissolved organic matter (DOM; identified by fluorescence analyses) in ambient waters. Concentrations of nutrients and protein-like fluorescent DOM (FDOM) explained nearly half of the variation in BDOC, whereas PDOC was exclusively predicted by DOM optical properties, consistent with the photochemical degradability of specific FDOM pools that we experimentally determined. The concentrations of colored DOM (CDOM), which we use here as a proxy of terrestrial influence, almost entirely accounted for the observed relationship between FDOM and the concentrations of both BDOC and PDOC. The concentrations of CDOM and of the putative biolabile fluorescence component shifted from complete decoupling in clear-water environments to strong coupling in darker streams and wetlands. This suggests a baseline autochthonous BDOC pool fueled by internal production that is gradually overwhelmed by land-derived BDOC as terrestrial influence increases across landscape gradients. The importance of land as a major source of both biologically and photochemically degradable DOC for continental watersheds resulted in a partial coupling of those carbon pools in natural freshwaters, despite fundamental contrasts in terms of their composition and regulation.