Among fermentative yeast species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae is most frequently used as a model organism, although other yeast species may have special features that make them interesting candidates to apply in food-fermentation processes. In this study, we used three yeast species isolated from fermented masau (Ziziphus mauritiana) fruit, S. cerevisiae 131, Pichia fabianii 65 and Pichia kudriavzevii 129, and determined the impact of nitrogen and/or glucose limitation on surface growth mode and the production of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). All three species displayed significant changes in growth mode in all nutrient-limited conditions, signified by the formation of metafilaments or pseudohyphae. The timing of the transition was found to be species-specific. Transition in growth mode is suggested to be linked to the production of certain fusel alcohols, such as phenylethyl alcohol, which serve as quorum-sensing molecules. Interestingly, we did not observe concomitant increased production of phenylethyl alcohol and filamentous growth. Notably, a broader range of esters was found only for the Pichia spp. grown on nitrogen-limited agar for 21 days compared to nutrient-rich agar, and when grown on glucose- and glucose- plus nitrogen-limited agar. Our data suggest that for the Pichia spp., the formation of esters may play an important role in the switch in growth mode upon nitrogen limitation. Further biological or ecological implications of ester formation are discussed. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.