Particulate material comprising the detrital remains of terrestrial plants and macrophytes is a substantial source of organic matter to estuaries and therefore has the potential to support the energy demands of the pelagic aquatic food web. Despite the prevalence of macrophytic or terrestrial particulate organic carbon (tPOC), phytoplankton are nutritionally superior and are thought to be the primary food resource for zooplankton. However, estuarine phytoplankton primary productivity abundances can wax and wane, and often production cannot meet heterotrophic energy needs. In this study, we examined how tPOC (detritus of macrophytes and grasses) may affect survival of a calanoid copepod (Eurytemora affinis) common in the San Francisco Estuary (SFE), an estuary with relatively low phytoplankton primary productivity. Using chemical biomarkers and a targeted DNA metagenomic methodology, we show that E. affinis consumed tPOC (dominated by Schoenoplectus sp., or tule) even when phytoplankton were abundant and tPOC was scarce. Furthermore, we found that a mixed diet of phytoplankton and terrestrial material (1:3 carbon ratio) enhanced the survival of E. affinis over a diet of phytoplankton alone. These data show that tPOC can be a vital supplementary food source for zooplankton, perhaps extending survival during low phytoplankton periods, and may help explain elevated zooplankton abundances in tidal wetlands and other detrital-dominated regions.
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