1. In temperate regions, submerged macrophytes can hamper phytoplankton blooms. Such an effect could arise directly, for instance via allelopathy, or indirectly, via competition for nutrients or the positive interaction between submerged macrophytes and zooplankton grazing. However, there is some evidence that the positive interaction between submerged macrophytes and zooplankton grazing is less marked in warmer regions, where the interaction is less well studied, and that negative effects of higher water plants on phytoplankton biomass are weaker.
2. We carried out two consecutive mesocosm experiments in Uruguay (subtropical South America) to study the effects of two common submerged macrophytes from this region (Egeria densa and Potamogeton illinoensis) on phytoplankton biomass, in the absence of zooplankton grazing. We compared phytoplankton development between different macrophyte treatments (no macrophytes, artificial macrophytes, real Egeria and real Potamogeton). We used artificial macrophytes to differentiate between physical effects (i.e. shading, sedimentation and competition with periphyton) and biological effects (i.e. nutrient competition and allelopathy).
3. In Experiment 1, we found no evidence for physical effects of macrophytes on phytoplankton biomass, but both macrophyte species seemed to exert strong biological effects on phytoplankton biomass. Only Egeria affected phytoplankton community structure, particularly tempering the dominance of Scenedesmus. Nutrient addition assays revealed that only Egeria suppressed phytoplankton through nutrient competition.
4. We performed a second mesocosm experiment with the same design, but applying saturating nutrient conditions as a way of excluding the effects of competition for nutrients. This experiment showed that both macrophytes were still able to suppress phytoplankton through biological mechanisms, providing evidence for allelopathic effects. Our results indicate that both common macrophytes are able to keep phytoplankton biomass low, even in the absence of zooplankton grazing.