Eco-evolutionary dynamics of ecological stoichiometry in plankton communities

Pedro Branco, Martijn Egas, James J. Elser, Jef Huisman

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33 Scopus citations


Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) limit primary production in many aquatic ecosystems, with major implications for ecological interactions in plankton communities. Yet it remains unclear how evolution may affect the N∶P stoichiometry of phytoplankton-zooplankton interactions. Here, we address this issue by analyzing an eco-evolutionary model of phytoplankton-zooplankton interactions with explicit nitrogen and phosphorus dynamics. In our model, investment of phytoplankton in nitrogen versus phosphorus uptake is an evolving trait, and zooplankton display selectivity for phytoplankton with N∶P ratios matching their nutritional requirements. We use this model to explore implications of the contrasting N∶P requirements of copepods versus cladocerans. The model predicts that selective zooplankton strongly affect the N∶P ratio of phytoplankton, resulting in deviations from their optimum N∶P ratio. Specifically, selective grazing by nitrogen-demanding copepods favors dominance of phytoplankton with low N∶P ratios, whereas phosphorus-demanding cladocerans favor dominance of phytoplankton with high N∶P ratios. Interestingly, selective grazing by nutritionally balanced zoo-plankton leads to the occurrence of alternative stable states, where phytoplankton may evolve either low, optimum, or high N∶P ratios, de-pending on the initial conditions. These results offer a new perspective on commonly observed differences in N∶P stoichiometry between plankton of freshwater and those of marine ecosystems and indicate that selective grazing by zooplankton can have a major impact on the stoichiometric composition of phytoplankton.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E1-E20
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018


  • Cladocerans
  • Copepods
  • N∶P ratio
  • Phytoplankton
  • Redfield ratio
  • Zooplankton


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