Elemental and biochemical nutrient limitation of zooplankton: A meta-analysis

Patrick K. Thomas* (Corresponding author), Charlotte Kunze, D.B. van de Waal, Helmut Hillebrand, Maren Striebel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Primary consumers in aquatic ecosystems are frequently limited by the quality of their food, often expressed as phytoplankton elemental and biochemical composition. However, the effects of these food quality indicators vary across studies, and we lack an integrated understanding of how elemental (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus) and biochemical (e.g. fatty acid, sterol) limitations interactively influence aquatic food webs. Here, we present the results of a meta-analysis using >100 experimental studies, confirming that limitation by N, P, fatty acids, and sterols all have significant negative effects on zooplankton performance. However, effects varied by grazer response (growth vs. reproduction), specific manipulation, and across taxa. While P limitation had greater effects on zooplankton growth than fatty acids overall, P and fatty acid limitation had equal effects on reproduction. Furthermore, we show that: nutrient co-limitation in zooplankton is strong; effects of essential fatty acid limitation depend on P availability; indirect effects induced by P limitation exceed direct effects of mineral P limitation; and effects of nutrient amendments using laboratory phytoplankton isolates exceed those using natural field communities. Our meta-analysis reconciles contrasting views about the role of various food quality indicators, and their interactions, for zooplankton performance, and provides a mechanistic understanding of trophic transfer in aquatic environments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2776-2792
Number of pages17
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number12
Early online date2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

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