Light limitation increases multidimensional trait evenness in phytoplankton populations

Simone Fontana*, Mridul K. Thomas, Marta Reyes, Francesco Pomati

*Corresponding author for this work

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Individual-level variation arising from responses to environmental gradients influences population and community dynamics. How such responses empirically relate to the mechanisms that govern species coexistence is, however, poorly understood. Previous results from 1 ake phytoplankton communities suggested that the evenness of organismal traits in multiple dimensions increases with resource limitation, possibly due to resource partitioning at the individual level. Here we experimentally tested the emergence of this pattern by growing two phytoplankton species (Pseudokirchneriella subcapitata and Microcystis aeruginosa) under a gradient of light intensity, in monoculture and jointly. Under low light (resource) conditions, the populations diversified into a wide range of phenotypes, which were evenly distributed in multidimensional trait space (defined by four pigment-related trait dimensions), consistent with the observed field pattern. Our interpretation is that under conditions of light limitation, individual phytoplankton cells alter photosynthetic traits to reduce overlap in light acquisition, acquiring unexploited resources and thereby likely maximising individual success. Our results provide prime experimental evidence that resource limitation increases the evenness of conspecific and heterospecific microbial phenotypes along trait axes, advancing our understanding of trait-based coexistence.
Original languageEnglish
JournalISME Journal
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)1159-1167
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Community ecology
  • Microbial ecology


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