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Competition of microalgae under fluctuating light

Author(s): Litchman A, Klausmeier CA


Light is an essential resource for phytoplankton and fluctuates on a wide range of timescales. To understand how light fluctuations affect phytoplankton community structure and diversity, we have studied a set of simple models using a combination of analytical and numerical techniques. Light fluctuations can affect community structure when species exhibit the gleaner‐opportunist trade‐off between competitive ability and ability to reach carrying capacity quickly. Fast fluctuations can switch the competitive dominant from a gleaner to an opportunist; slow fluctuations can cause this switch and also lead to stable coexistence. Coexistence is easiest between species that are highly differentiated along the gleaner‐opportunist trade‐off. Our results remain qualitatively unchanged when more realistic light fluctuations such as daily and seasonal changes in irradiance and the presence of a spatial gradient in light are considered. Seasonal change in day length may be one of the factors driving the seasonal succession of phytoplankton, from opportunist species dominant under shorter day lengths (spring and autumn) to gleaner species dominant under longer day length (summer). These results illustrate how resource fluctuations can have an important role in structuring ecological communities.

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