Foraging trade-offs, flagellar arrangements, and flow architecture of planktonic protists

Lasse Tor Nielsen, Thomas Kiørboe*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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Unicellular flagellated protists are a key element in aquatic microbial food webs. They all use flagella to swim and to generate feeding currents to encounter prey and enhance nutrient uptake. At the same time, the beating flagella create flow disturbances that attract flow-sensing predators. Protists have highly diverse flagellar arrangements in terms of number of flagella and their position, beat pattern, and kinematics, but it is unclear how the various arrangements optimize the fundamental trade-off between resource acquisition and predation risk. Here we describe the near-cell flow fields produced by 15 species and demonstrate consistent relationships between flagellar arrangement and swimming speed and between flagellar arrangement and flow architecture, and a trade-off between resource acquisition and predation risk. The flow fields fall in categories that are qualitatively described by simple point force models that include the drag force of the moving cell body and the propulsive forces of the flagella. The trade-off between resource acquisition and predation risk varies characteristically between flow architectures: Flagellates with multiple flagella have higher predation risk relative to their clearance rate compared to species with only one active flagellum, with the exception of the highly successful dinoflagellates that have simultaneously achieved high clearance rates and stealth behavior due to a unique flagellar arrangement. Microbial communities are shaped by trade-offs and environmental constraints, and a mechanistic explanation of foraging trade-offs is a vital part of understanding the eukaryotic communities that form the basis of pelagic food webs.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2009930118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number3
Number of pages6
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Clearance rate
  • Predation risk
  • Flow disturbance
  • Point force models


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