Organismal trade-offs and the pace of planktonic life

Thomas Kiørboe*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


No one is perfect, and organisms that perform well in some habitat or with respect to some tasks, do so at the cost of performance in others: there are inescapable trade-offs. Organismal trade-offs govern the structure and function of ecosystems and attempts to demonstrate and quantify trade-offs have therefore been an important goal for ecologists. In addition, trade-offs are a key component in trait-based ecosystem models. Here, I synthesise evidence of trade-offs in plankton organisms, from bacteria to zooplankton, and show how a slow-fast gradient in life histories emerges. I focus on trade-offs related to the main components of an organism's Darwinian fitness, that is resource acquisition, survival, and propagation. All consumers need to balance the need to eat without being eaten, and diurnal vertical migration, where zooplankton hide at depth during the day to avoid visual predators but at the cost of missed feeding opportunities in the productive surface layer, is probably the best documented result of this trade-off. However, there are many other more subtle but equally important behaviours that similarly are the result of an optimisation of these trade-offs. Most plankton groups have also developed more explicit defence mechanisms, such as toxin production or evasive behaviours that are harnessed in the presence of their predators; the costs of these have often proved difficult to quantify or even demonstrate, partly because they only materialise under natural conditions. Finally, all multicellular organisms must allocate time and resources among growth, reproduction, and maintenance (e.g. protein turnover and DNA repair), and mate finding may compromise both survival and feeding. The combined effects of all these trade-offs is the emergence of a slow-fast gradient in the pace-of-life, likely the most fundamental principle for the organisation of organismal life histories. This crystallisation of trade-offs may offer a path to further simplification of trait-based models of marine ecosystems.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBiological Reviews
Number of pages11
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2024


  • Life histories
  • Stealth vs bold behaviour
  • Defence
  • Growth vs reproduction
  • Resource aquisition


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