Phytoplankton assemblage characteristics in recurrently fluctuating environments. Academic Article uri icon


  • Annual variations in biogeochemical and physical processes can lead to nutrient variability and seasonal patterns in phytoplankton productivity and assemblage structure. In many coastal systems river inflow and water exchange with the ocean varies seasonally, and alternating periods can arise where the nutrient most limiting to phytoplankton growth switches. Transitions between these alternating periods can be sudden or gradual and this depends on human activities, such as reservoir construction and interbasin water transfers. How such activities might influence phytoplankton assemblages is largely unknown. Here, we employed a multispecies, multi-nutrient model to explore how nutrient loading switching mode might affect characteristics of phytoplankton assemblages. The model is based on the Monod-relationship, predicting an instantaneous growth rate from ambient inorganic nutrient concentrations whereas the limiting nutrient at any given time was determined by Liebig's Law of the Minimum. Our simulated phytoplankton assemblages self-organized from species rich pools over a 15-year period, and only the surviving species were considered as assemblage members. Using the model, we explored the interactive effects of complementarity level in trait trade-offs within phytoplankton assemblages and the amount of noise in the resource supply concentrations. We found that the effect of shift from a sudden resource supply transition to a gradual one, as observed in systems impacted by watershed development, was dependent on the level of complementarity. In the extremes, phytoplankton species richness and relative overyielding increased when complementarity was lowest, and phytoplankton biomass increased greatly when complementarity was highest. For low-complementarity simulations, the persistence of poorer-performing phytoplankton species of intermediate R*s led to higher richness and relative overyielding. For high-complementarity simulations, the formation of phytoplankton species clusters and niche compression enabled higher biomass accumulation. Our findings suggest that an understanding of factors influencing the emergence of life history traits important to complementarity is necessary to predict the impact of watershed development on phytoplankton productivity and assemblage structure.

published proceedings

  • PLoS One

altmetric score

  • 3

author list (cited authors)

  • Roelke, D. L., & Spatharis, S.

citation count

  • 13

complete list of authors

  • Roelke, Daniel L||Spatharis, Sofie

editor list (cited editors)

  • Chapman, M.

publication date

  • March 2015