Phytoplankton growth and the interaction of light and temperature: A synthesis at the species and community level

Kyle F. Edwards, Mridul K. Thomas, Christopher A. Klausmeier, Elena Litchman

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Temperature strongly affects phytoplankton growth rates, but its effect on communities and ecosystem processes is debated. Because phytoplankton are often limited by light, temperature should change community structure if it affects the traits that determine competition for light. Furthermore, the aggregate response of phytoplankton communities to temperature will depend on how changes in community structure scale up to bulk rates. Here, we synthesize experiments on 57 phytoplankton species to analyze how the growth-irradiance relationship changes with temperature. We find that light-limited growth, light-saturated growth, and the optimal irradiance for growth are all highly sensitive to temperature. Within a species, these traits are co-adapted to similar temperature optima, but light-limitation reduces a species' temperature optimum by ∼5°C, which may be an adaptation to how light and temperature covary with depth or reflect underlying physiological correlations. Importantly, the maximum achievable growth rate increases with temperature under light saturation, but not under strong light limitation. This implies that light limitation diminishes the temperature sensitivity of bulk phytoplankton growth, even though community structure will be temperature-sensitive. Using a database of primary production incubations, we show that this prediction is consistent with estimates of bulk phytoplankton growth across gradients of temperature and irradiance in the ocean. These results indicate that interactions between temperature and resource limitation will be fundamental for explaining how phytoplankton communities and biogeochemical processes vary across temperature gradients and respond to global change.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLimnology and Oceanography
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)1232-1244
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

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