Stream Ecology and Biogeochemistry

Jennifer L. Tank

Ludmilla F., Stephen J., and Robert T. Galla Professor of Biological Sciences
Ph.D., Virginia Tech
Postdoctoral, Virginia Tech and Oak Ridge National Laboratory


Research: The influence of human land use on stream ecosystem function

Tank figure 1 My research program centers on the influence of anthropogenic activities on stream ecosystem function.  Below I outline the research themes in my laboratory that demonstrate the type of work ongoing in my lab. Results from our research demonstrates a commitment to outreach with the broader community of policy makers, NGOs, and agencies in order to improve the management of our freshwater ecosystems.

The effect of human land use on nitrogen cycling in headwater streams.

Human activities such as fossil fuel combustion, agricultural fertilizer application and legume cultivation are adding large amounts of fixed nitrogen to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The movement of nitrogen from agricultural areas in the Midwest to the downstream water bodies such as the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico have been linked to the recurring “dead zones” (i.e. hypoxic zones). Our research is quantifying the effects of agricultural and urban land use on the uptake and retention of nitrate-N, both through temporary (assimilatory) and permanent (denitrification) biotic pathways. Our overarching goal is to gain a better understanding of the role that small streams play in removing nitrogen from water and preventing it from polluting downstream ecosystems.

Cycling of novel allochthonous carbon in Midwestern agricultural streams.

Tank figure 2 In the Midwestern US, headwater streams draining agricultural fields represent the principal lotic ecosystem. Despite their predominance in the landscape, these ecosystems have been understudied relative to waterways in less modified catchments. Crop byproducts remaining on fields (e.g. non-harvested foliage) may represent a dominant allochthonous carbon source in agriculturally-influenced headwater streams and until our research, the role of this novel carbon source had not been determined.  In addition, Midwestern agricultural fields are often planted with transgenic Bt maize, which contains proteins that are toxic to lepidopteran pests such as the European corn-borer. Aquatic filter-feeding and shredding caddisflies are closely related to the target pest and can be abundant in stream food webs. The potential effect of transgenic crop byproducts on non-target ecosystems has received little attention, and consideration of headwater streams as a mechanism for the unintended dispersal of Bt d-endotoxin should be considered.

Influence of floodplain reconnection on sediment dynamics and nitrogen removal in agricultural streams.

Tank figure 3 Floodplains connect streams to riparian areas and often function as hotspots for biological nitrogen removal as well as sediment deposition.  Conventionally-managed agricultural streams are generally channelized, and characterized by high nutrient and sediment export along with unstable banks.  In the agricultural Midwest, these issues are exacerbated by flashy hydrographs resulting from floodplain disconnection and extensive tile drainage. "Two-stage" ditch management restores floodplain benches to formerly incised stream channels with the intent of reducing erosion and increasing water residence time and subsequent sedimentation. In addition, floodplain benches, with their saturated organic-rich soils, may function to increase biological N removal through the promotion of microbial denitrification.  Thus far, our research suggests that two-stage management has the potential to immediately reduce water column turbidity and sediment load, and floodplain benches increase bioreactive surface area resulting in an increase in reach-scale N removal.  But reducing nitrogen exports from agricultural landscapes will need to be combined with a combination of in-stream and on-field management strategies to reduce nitrate loading to streams. 

Learn more about the two-stage ditch with a the following short video made for the Western Lake Erie Basin Project Office by Ravenswood Media including an interview with Dr. Tank.

Using empirical and modeling approaches to quantify the importance of nutrient spiraling in rivers.

Tank figure 4 Our previous research has shown that headwater streams can influence the export of nutrients to downstream ecosystems. Yet the ability of rivers to process and retain nutrients has been understudied and there is a critical research gap limiting our understanding how entire river systems (not just stream reaches) influence nutrient export. We are using a novel field approach to gather empirical measurements of nutrient uptake in multiple rivers across the Western and Midwestern US and are integrating these data into a dynamic network-scale model to evaluate controls on nutrient uptake. We predict that the results from this research will generate critical predictive relationships regarding the capacity of  rivers, spanning a range of nutrient and sediment conditions, to mitigate downstream nutrient export. Work such as this represents an essential step towards effective water quality management at the river network scale.

Selected representative publications (chronological, last 3 years): 

Rosi-Marshall, E.J., J. L. Tank, T.V. Royer, M.R. Whiles, M. Evans-White, C. Chambers, N.A.  Griffiths, J. Pokelsek, & M.L. Stephen. 2007. Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts affect headwater streams. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104:16204-16208.

Gooseff, M.N., R.O. Hall, and J.L. Tank. 2007. Relating Transient Storage to Channel Complexity in Streams of Varying Land Use in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Water Resources Research 43:1-10

Inwood, S.E., J.L. Tank, and M.J. Bernot. 2007. Factors controlling sediment denitrification in Midwestern streams of varying land use. Microbial Ecology. 53:1-12.

Winterbourn, M.J., W.L. Chadderton, S.A. Entrekin, J.S. Harding and J.L. Tank. 2007.  Distribution and dispersal of adult stream insects in a heterogeneous montane environment. Fundamental and Applied Ecology 168: 127-135.

Arango, C.P., J.L Tank, J.L. Schaller, T.V. Royer, M.J. Bernot, and M.B. David. 2007. Benthic organic carbon influences denitrification in streams with high nitrate concentration. Freshwater Biology 52:1210-1222.

Hoellein, T.J., J.L. Tank, E.J. Rosi-Marshall, S.A. Entrekin, G.A. Lamberti. 2007. Controls on spatial and temporal variation of nutrient uptake in three Michigan headwater streams. Limnol. Oceanogr. 52: 1964-1977.

Entrekin, S.A., E.J. Rosi-Marshall, J.L. Tank, Hoellein, T.J., and G.A. Lamberti.  2007.  Macroinvertebrate secondary production in forested sand-bottom streams of the Upper Midwest.  Journal of the North American Benthological Society 26:472-490.

Tank, J.L., E.J. Rosi-Marshall, M.A. Baker, and R.O. Hall. 2008. Are rivers just big streams? A method to quantify nitrogen demand in a large river. Ecology 89: 2935–2945.

Arango, C.P. and J.L. Tank. 2008. Land use influences the spatio-temporal controls on nitrification and denitrification in headwater streams. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 27:90-107

Tiegs, S.D., D.T. Chaloner, P. Levi, J. Rueegg, J.L. Tank and G.A. Lamberti. 2008. Timber harvest transforms ecological roles of salmon in Southeast Alaskarain forest streams. Ecological Applications 18:4-11.

Bruesewitz , D.A., J.L. Tank, and M.J. Bernot. 2008. Delineating the effects of zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) on nitrogen transformation rates using laboratory mesocosms. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 27:236–251.

Mulholland, P.J., A.M. Helton, G.C. Poole, R.O. Hall, Jr., S.K. Hamilton, B.J. Peterson, J.L. Tank, L.R. Ashkenas, L.W. Cooper, C.N. Dahm, W.K. Dodds, S.E.G. Findlay, S.V. Gregory, N.B. Grimm, S. L. Johnson, W.H. McDowell, J.L. Meyer, H. M. Valett, J.R. Webster, C.P. Arango, J.J. Beaulieu, M.J. Bernot, A.J. Burgin, C.L. Crenshaw, L.T. Johnson, B.R. Niederlehner, J.M. O’Brien, J.D. Potter, R.W. Sheibley, D.J. Sobota, and S.M. Thomas. 2008. Stream denitrification across biomes and its response to anthropogenic nitrate loading. Nature 452: 202-206.

Beaulieu, J.J., C.P. Arango, J.L. Tank, and S. Hamilton. 2008. The production and emission of nitrous oxide from headwater streams in the Midwestern USA. Global Change Biology 14: 878–894.

Cordova, J.M., E.J. Rosi-Marshall, J.L. Tank, and G.A. Lamberti. 2008. Coarse particulate organic matter transport in low-gradient streams of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 27: 760-771.

Entrekin S.A., J.L. Tank, Rosi-Marshall E.J., Hoellein T.J., and Lamberti G.A. 2008. Responses in organic matter accumulation and processing to an experimental wood addition in three headwater streams. Freshwater Biology 53: 1642–1657.

Dodds, W. K., J. J. Beaulieu, J. J. Eichmiller, J. R. Fischer, N. R. Franssen, D. A. Gudder, A. S. Makinster, M. J. McCarthy, J. N. Murdock, J. M. O’Brien, J. L. Tank, and R. W. Sheibley.  2008. Nitrogen cycling and metabolism in the thalweg of a prairie river. Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences. 113, G04029, doi:10.1029/2008JG000696.

Arango, C.P., J.L. Tank, L.T. Johnson, and S.K. Hamilton. 2008. Assimilatory uptake rather than dissimilatory transformation determines seasonal patterns in nitrogen removal in streams of varying land use. Limnology and Oceanography.  53:2558-2572.

 Griffiths, N. A., J. L. Tank, T. V. Royer, C. P. Chambers, M. A. Evans-White, T. C. Frauendorf, E. J. Rosi-Marshall, and M. R. Whiles. 2009. Microbial respiration and decomposition of conventional and genetically engineered corn in agricultural streams.  Ecological Applications 19: 133–142.

Beaulieu, J.J., J.L. Tank, and M. Kopacz. 2008. Sorption of imidazolium-based ionic liquids onto aquatic sediments. Chemosphere. 70: 1320-1328.

Beaulieu, J.J., C.P. Arango, and J.L. Tank.  2009.  The effects of season and agriculture on N2O production in headwater streams.  Journal of Environmental Quality. 38:1-10. 

Bruesewitz , D.A., J.L. Tank, and S.K. Hamilton. 2009. Seasonal effects of zebra mussels on littoral N transformation rates in Gull Lake, Michigan, USA. Freshwater Biology. 54:1427-1443.   

Johnson, L.T., J.L. Tank, and W.K. Dodds.  2009. The effect of land use on biofilm nutrient limitation across eight North American biomes.  Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 66: 1081-1094.

Hall, R. O., J. L. Tank, D. J. Sobota, P. J. Mulholland, J. M. O’Brien, W. K. Dodds, J. R. Webster, H. M. Valett, G.C. Poole, B. J. Peterson, J. L. Meyer, W. H. McDowell, S. L. Johnson, S. K. Hamilton, N. B. Grimm, S. V. Gregory, C. N. Dahm, L. W. Cooper, L.R. Ashkenas, S. M. Thomas, R. W. Sheibley, J. D. Potter, B. R. Niederlehner, L. Johnson, A. M. Helton, C. Crenshaw, A. J. Burgin, M. J. Bernot, , J. J. Beaulieu, C.Arango. 2009. Nitrate removal in stream ecosystems measured by 15N addition experiments: Total uptake. Limnology and Oceanography 54: 653–665.

Mulholland, P. J., R.O. Hall, D. J. Sobota, W. K. Dodds, S.E.G. Findlay, N.B. Grimm, S.K. Hamilton, W.H. McDowell, J. M. O’Brien, J.L. Tank, L. R. Ashkenas, L.W. Cooper, C.N. Dahm, S.V. Gregory, S.L. Johnson, J.L. Meyer, B. J. Peterson, G.C. Poole. H.M. Valett, J.R. Webster, C.P. Arango, J.J. Beaulieu, M.J. Bernot, A.J. Burgin, C.L. Crenshaw, A.M. Helton, L.T. Johnson, B. R. Niederlehner, J.D. Potter, R.W. Sheibley, and S.M. Thomas. 2009. Nitrate removal in stream ecosystems measured by 15N addition experiments: Denitrification. Limnology and Oceanography  54: 666–680.

Arango, C.P., L.A. Riley, J.L. Tank, and R.O. Hall, Jr. 2009. Herbivory by an invasive snail increases nitrogen fixation in a nitrogen-limited stream. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 66: 1309–1317.

Hoellein, T.J., J.L. Tank, E.J. Rosi-Marshall, and S.A. Entrekin. 2009. Temporal variation in substratum-specific rates of N uptake and metabolism and their relative contribution at the stream-reach scale. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 28:305–318.

Johnson, L.T. and J.L. Tank.  2009. Diel fluctuations in dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen uptake in six Wyoming streams.  Journal of the North American Benthological Society 28: 694-708.

Tiegs, S.D., E.Y. Campbell, P.S. Levi, J. Rüegg, M.E. Benbow, D.T.Chaloner, R.W. Merritt, J.L. Tank and G.A. Lamberti.  2009. Separating Physical Disturbance and Nutrient Enrichment Caused by Pacific Salmon in Stream Ecosystems.  Freshwater Biology 54:1864-75.

Johnson, L.T., J.L. Tank, and C.P. Arango. 2009. The effect of land use on dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen uptake in streams in the Kalamazoo River basin, Michigan . Freshwater Biology 54:2335-2350.

Hemme, R, , J.L. Tank, D.D. Chadee, D.W. Severson. 2009. Environmental Conditions in Water Storage Drums and Influences on Aedes aegypti inTrinidad, West Indies. Acta Tropica 112:59–66.

Warrner, T.J., T.V. Royer, J.L. Tank, N.A. Griffiths, E.J. Rosi-Marshall, and M.R. Whiles. 2009. Dissolved organic carbon in streams from artificially drained and intensively farmed watersheds in Indiana, USA. Biogeochemistry 95:295-307.

Tank, J.L.,E.J. Rosi-Marshall, N.A. Griffiths, S.A. Entrekin, and M.L. Stephen. 2010. A review of allochthonous organic matter dynamics and metabolism in streams.  Journal of the North American Benthological Society 29:118–146.

Hoellein, T.J., J.L. Tank, J. Kelly, E.J. Rosi-Marshall. 2010. Seasonal variation in nutrient limitation of microbial biofilms colonizing organic and inorganic substrata in streams. Hydrobiologia 649:331–345.

Bernot, M.J., D.J. Sobota, P.J. Mulholland, R.O. Hall, W.K. Dodds, J.R. Webster, J.L. Tank, L.R. Ashkenas, L.W. Cooper, C.N. Dahm, N.B. Grimm, S.V. Gregory, Stephen K. Hamilton, S.L. Johnson, W.H. McDowell, J.L. Meyer, B.J. Peterson, G.C. Poole, H.M. Valett, C.P. Arango, J.J. Beaulieu, A.J. Burgin, C.L. Crenshaw, A.M. Helton, L.T. Johnson, J. Merriam, B.R. Niederlehner, J.M. O’Brien, J.D. Potter, R.W. Sheibley, S.M. Thomas, and K.Wilson.  2010.  Inter-regional comparison of land-use effects on stream metabolism.  Freshwater Biology 55: 1874–1890.

Entrekin, S.A., J.L. Tank, E.J. Rosi-Marshall, T.J. Hoellein, and G.A. Lamberti. In press. Responses in macroinvertebrate secondary production to large wood addition in three Michigan. streams  Freshwater Biology.

Chambers, C. P., M.R. Whiles, E.J. Rosi-Marshall, J.L. Tank, T.V. Royer, N.A. Griffiths, M.A. Evans-White, and A. Stojak. In press.  Responses of stream macroinvertebrates to Bt maize leaf detritus. Ecological Applications.

Helton, A.M., G.C. Poole, J.L. Meyer, W. M. Wollheim, B. J. Peterson, P. J. Mulholland, J.A. Stanford, C.P. Arango, L.R. Ashkenas, L.W. Cooper, W. K. Dodds, S.V. Gregory, R.O. Hall, S.K. Hamilton, S.L. Johnson, W.H. McDowell, J. D. Potter, J. L. Tank, S. M. Thomas, H.M. Valett, J.R. Webster, and L. Zeglin. In Press. Thinking outside the channel: Nitrogen cycling in networked river ecosystems. Front Ecol Environ.

Findlay, S., P.J. Mulholland, S. Hamilton, J.L. Tank, M.J. Bernot, A. Burgin, C. Crenshaw, C. Dahm, W.K. Dodds, N. Grimm, W. McDowell, J. Potter, D. Sobota. In Press. Cross-stream comparison of habitat denitrification potential. Biogeochemistry.

Tank, J.L.,E. J. Rosi-Marshall, T. V. Royer, M. R. Whiles, N. A. Griffiths, T. C. Frauendorf, and D. J. Treering. In Press. Occurrence of maize detritus and a transgenic insecticidal protein (Cry1Ab) within the stream network of an agricultural landscape. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.