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Interplay between r- and K-strategists leads to phytoplankton underyielding under pulsed resource supply


Fluctuations in nutrient ratios over seasonal scales in aquatic ecosystems can result in overyielding, a condition arising when complementary life-history traits of coexisting phytoplankton species enables more complete use of resources. However, when nutrient concentrations fluctuate under short-period pulsed resource supply, the role of complementarity is less understood. We explore this using the framework of Resource Saturation Limitation Theory (r-strategists vs. K-strategists) to interpret findings from laboratory experiments. For these experiments, we isolated dominant species from a natural assemblage, stabilized to a state of coexistence in the laboratory and determined life-history traits for each species, important to categorize its competition strategy. Then, using monocultures we determined maximum biomass density under pulsed resource supply. These same conditions of resource supply were used with polycultures comprised of combinations of the isolated species. Our focal species were consistent of either r- or K-strategies and the biomass production achieved in monocultures depended on their efficiency to convert resources to biomass. For these species, the K-strategists were less efficient resource users. This affected biomass production in polycultures, which were characteristic of underyielding. In polycultures, K-strategists sequestered more resources than the r-strategists. This likely occurred because the intermittent periods of nutrient limitation that would have occurred just prior to the next nutrient supply pulse would have favored the K-strategists, leading to overall less efficient use of resources by the polyculture. This study provides evidence that fluctuation in resource concentrations resulting from pulsed resource supplies in aquatic ecosystems can result in phytoplankton assemblages’ underyielding.

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The authors would like to thank Ulrich Sommer, Jason Matthiopoulos, Georg Pohnert and three anonymous reviewers for their essential comments on this research work.

Author information

DLR and SS originally formulated the idea. SS and ES designed the experiments. LAP performed the experiments. DBD, ES, LAP measured the species traits. SS, ES, GDK, LAP performed statistical analysis. ES, SS, PGD, DLR provided the ecological and mechanistic interpretation of experimental results. SS, ES, GDK, LAP wrote the manuscript and DLR provided editorial advice. LAP, ES, SS and DLR revised the manuscript.

Correspondence to Lydia A. Papanikolopoulou.

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Communicated by Ulrich Sommer.

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Papanikolopoulou, L.A., Smeti, E., Roelke, D.L. et al. Interplay between r- and K-strategists leads to phytoplankton underyielding under pulsed resource supply. Oecologia 186, 755–764 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-4050-x

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  • Nutrient pulses
  • Competition
  • Species traits
  • Resource saturation
  • Nutrient limitation