Linking traits to species diversity and community structure in phytoplankton
In addition to answering Hutchinson’s question “Why are there so many species?”, we need to understand why certain species are found only under certain environmental conditions and not others. Trait-based approaches are being increasingly used in ecology to do just that: explain and predict species distributions along environmental gradients. These approaches can be successful in understanding the diversity and community structure of phytoplankton. Among major traits shaping phytoplankton distributions are resource utilization traits, morphological traits (with size being probably the most influential), grazer resistance traits, and temperature responses. We review these trait-based approaches and give examples of how trait data can explain species distributions in both freshwater and marine systems. We also outline new directions in trait-based approaches applied to phytoplankton such as looking simultaneously at trait and phylogenetic structure of phytoplankton communities and using adaptive dynamics models to predict trait evolution.