Investigating biogenic heterogeneity in coastal sediments with two-dimensional measurements of iron(II) and sulfide

David Robertson, David T. Welsh, Peter R. Teasdale

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Environmental context. Microbial respiration generally occurs in distinct layers within coastal sediment, producing high porewater iron or sulfide concentrations, although this layering is dramatically modified by the activities of sediment-dwelling organisms. The present study describes use of a new technique to simultaneously measure two-dimensional concentrations of porewater iron and sulfide at millimetre resolution, allowing the patchiness of patterns of microbial respiration in sediment to be clearly observed. The measurements generally supported a conceptual model predicting the effects of animal burrows and seagrass roots on the porewater iron and sulfide distributions, although the addition of organic matter provided some unexpected observations that require further investigation. Abstract. One of the most powerful predictive tools in sediment biogeochemistry is the electron acceptor layering model, which describes the order in which oxidised compounds are reduced by successions of respiring microbial populations, and how this layering is influenced by benthic macro-organism activity. However, techniques allowing convenient determination of heterogeneous distributions of reduced substances, such as iron(II) and sulfide, have been lacking. A combined diffusive gradients in thin filmsdiffusive equilibrium in thin films technique was used to quantitatively measure the two-dimensional iron(II) and sulfide distributions at high resolution in the vicinity of various sediment features, including macrofauna burrows, particulate organic matter and macrophyte roots. Substantial heterogeneity was observed for both analytes in all probes, especially in the vicinity of seagrass roots and particulate organic matter. Measured distributions tended to follow the general patterns predicted by the tertiary electron acceptor layering model. However, there was unexpected overlap of sulfide and iron(II) distributions at the millimetre to centimetre scale in several samples from different sediments, notably the more complex sediments containing particulate organic matter and seagrass roots. The cause of such overlap is unclear and further study is necessary to elucidate how such distributions can occur.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)60-69
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Chemistry
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 26 Mar 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Benthic macrofauna
  • Biogeochemistry
  • High-resolution measurements
  • Microcosm
  • Simultaneous DET and DGT

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