Disturbance, A Mechanism for Increased Microbial Diversity in a Yellowstone National Park Hot Spring Mixing Zone
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
The parameters influencing species diversity in natural ecosystems are difficult to assess due to the long and experimentally prohibitive timescales needed to develop causative relationships among measurements. Ecological diversity-disturbance models suggest that disturbance is a mechanism for increased species diversity, allowing for coexistence of species at an intermediate level of disturbance. Observing this mechanism often requires long timescales, such as the succession of a forest after a fire. In this study we evaluated the effect of mixing of two end member hydrothermal fluids on the diversity and structure of a microbial community where disturbance occurs on small temporal and spatial scales. Outflow channels from two hot springs of differing geochemical composition in Yellowstone National Park, one pH 3.3 and 36 °C and the other pH 7.6 and 61 °C flow together to create a mixing zone on the order of a few meters. Geochemical measurements were made at both in-coming streams and at a site of complete mixing downstream of the mixing zone, at pH 6.5 and 46 °C. Compositions were estimated across the mixing zone at 1 cm intervals using microsensor temperature and conductivity measurements and a mixing model. Qualitatively, there are four distinct ecotones existing over ranges in temperature and pH across the mixing zone. Community analysis of the 16S rRNA genes of these ecotones show a peak in diversity at maximal mixing. Principle component analysis of community 16S rRNA genes reflects coexistence of species with communities at maximal mixing plotting intermediate to communities at distal ends of the mixing zone. These spatial biological and geochemical observations suggest that the mixing zone is a dynamic ecosystem where geochemistry and biological diversity are governed by changes in the flow rate and geochemical composition of the two hot spring sources. In ecology, understanding how environmental disruption increases species diversity is a foundation for ecosystem conservation. By studying a hot spring environment where detailed measurements of geochemical variation and community diversity can be made at small spatial scales, the mechanisms by which maximal diversity is achieved can be tested and may assist in applications of diversity-disturbance models for larger ecosystems.