Does denitrification occur within porous carbonate sand grains?
Abstract. Permeable carbonate sands form a major habitat type on coral reefs and play a major role in organic matter recycling. Nitrogen cycling within these sediments is likely to play a major role in coral reef productivity, yet it remains poorly studied. Here, we used flow-through reactors and stirred reactors to quantify potential rates of denitrification and the dependence of denitrification on oxygen concentrations in permeable carbonate sands at three sites on Heron Island, Australia. Our results showed that potential rates of denitrification fell within the range of 2–28 µmol L−1 sediment h−1 and were very low compared to oxygen consumption rates, consistent with previous studies of silicate sands. Denitrification was observed to commence at porewater oxygen concentrations as high as 50 µM in stirred reactor experiments on the coarse sediment fraction (2–10 mm) and at oxygen concentrations of 10–20 µM in flow-through and stirred reactor experiments at a site with a median sediment grain size of 0.9 mm. No denitrification was detected in sediments under oxic conditions from another site with finer sediment (median grain size: 0.7 mm). We interpret these results as confirmation that denitrification may occur within anoxic microniches present within porous carbonate sand grains. The occurrence of such microniches has the potential to enhance denitrification rates within carbonate sediments; however further work is required to elucidate the extent and ecological significance of this effect.