A novel framework for quantifying past methane recycling by Sphagnum-methanotroph symbiosis using carbon and hydrogen isotope ratios of leaf wax biomarkers

Nichols, Jonathan E.; Isles, Peter D. F.; Peteet, Dorothy M.

The concentration of atmospheric methane is strongly linked to variations in Earth's climate. Currently, we can directly reconstruct the total atmospheric concentration of methane, but not individual terms of the methane cycle. Northern wetlands, dominated by Sphagnum, are an important contributor of atmospheric methane, and we seek to understand the methane cycle in these systems. We present a novel method for quantifying the proportion of carbon Sphagnum assimilates from its methanotrophic symbionts using stable isotope ratios of leaf-wax biomarkers. Carbon isotope ratios of Sphagnum compounds are determined by two competing influences, water content and the isotope ratio of source carbon. We disentangled these effects using a combined hydrogen and carbon isotope approach. We constrained Sphagnum water content using the contrast between the hydrogen isotope ratios of Sphagnum and vascular plant biomarkers. We then used Sphagnum water content to calculate the carbon isotope ratio of Sphagnum's carbon pool. Using a mass balance equation, we calculated the proportion of recycled methane contributed to the Sphagnum carbon pool, “PRM.” We quantified PRM in peat monoliths from three microhabitats in the Mer Bleue peatland complex. Modern studies have shown that water table depth and vegetation have strong influences on the peatland methane cycle on instrumental time scales. With this new approach, δ13C of Sphagnum compounds are now a useful tool for investigating the relationships among hydrology, vegetation, and methanotrophy in Sphagnum peatlands over the time scales of entire peatland sediment records, vital to our understanding of the global carbon cycle through the Late Glacial and Holocene.


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Also Published In

Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems

More About This Work

Academic Units
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Biology and Paleo Environment
Published Here
September 28, 2015