Water quality and eukaryotic plankton dynamics in the Mission-Aransas Estuary, Texas from 2011-2012
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As the base of the food chain, plankton affect the cycling of nutrients and organic matter within ecosystems and support production at higher trophic levels. The overall goal of this project was to examine how natural water quality fluctuations, such as changes in nutrients, temperature, and salinity, influence estuarine plankton community structure. To achieve this, I examined water quality as well as the diversity and biomass of eukaryotic plankton communities in a subtropical estuary located within the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve. The sampling sites included in this study consisted of three bay (Copano Bay West, Copano Bay East, Aransas Bay) and two river (Mission River Estuary, Aransas River Estuary) estuary sites. Water samples were collected monthly at the five sites from September 2011 to August 2012 and analyzed for a suite of abiotic and biotic variables. Eukaryotic plankton diversity and community structure were evaluated by using the terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (t-RFLP) method. Although a narrow salinity gradient was present at the sampling sites, seasonal changes in water quality conditions were observed. In the river estuaries, water quality parameters defined three significant temporal periods at the Mission River Estuary site, whereas only one month differed at the Aransas River Estuary site, indicating little seasonal variation. The Copano Bay sites exhibited a seasonal pattern consisting of four periods, marked by a distinct fall (October, November, December) grouping, while Aransas Bay showed a seasonal pattern consisting of three periods, with no fall group. Even though the water quality conditions define different monthly groupings in the bay and river estuary sites, the same parameters – DOC, TDN, and pH – are the strongest drivers of the patterns at all of the sites. Seasonal and spatial distinctions in the Mission-Aransas Estuary eukaryotic plankton community composition were determined using t-RFLP. Frequent shifts in composition were apparent across samples collected at approximately bi-weekly to monthly intervals. There were significant differences (ANOSIM, p < 0.05) in community composition between the Aransas and Mission River Estuary and Aransas Bay sites. Although the overall ANOSIM tests show significance between eukaryotic plankton communities monthly and between the bay water quality periods, none of the pairwise comparisons were significantly different. However, the ANOSIM R-statistic for the monthly pairwise comparisons displays a general increasing trend over time from sampling, further highlighting the dynamic nature of the microbial eukaryotic assemblage within sites.