Environmental variability drives rapid and dramatic changes in nutrient limitation of tropical macroalgae with different ecological strategies.
Nitrogen (N) or phosphorus (P) limits primary productivity in nearly every ecosystem worldwide, yet how limitation changes over time, particularly in connection to variation in environmental drivers, remains understudied. We evaluated temporal and species-specific variability in the relative importance of N and P limitation among tropical macroalgae in two-factor experiments conducted twice after rains and twice after dry conditions to explore potential linkages to environmental drivers. We studied three common macroalgal species with varying ecological strategies: a fast-growing opportunist, Dictyota bartayresiana; and two calcifying species likely to be slower growing, Galaxaura fasciculata and Padina boryana. On the scale of days to weeks, nutrient responses ranged among and within species from no limitation to increases in growth by 20 and 40% over controls in 3 d with N and P addition, respectively. After light rain or dry conditions, Dictyota grew rapidly (up to ~ 60% in 3 d) with little indication of nutrient limitation, while Padina and Galaxaura shifted between N, P, or no limitation. All species grew slowly or lost mass after a large storm, presumably due to unfavorable conditions on the reef prior to the experiment that limited nutrient uptake. Padina and Galaxaura both became nutrient limited 3 d post-storm, while Dictyota did not. These results suggest that differing capabilities for nutrient uptake and storage dictate the influence of nutrient history and thus drive nutrient responses and, in doing so, may allow species with differing ecological strategies to coexist in a fluctuating environment. Moreover, the great variability in species’ responses indicates that patterns of nutrient limitation are more complex than previously recognized, and generalizations about N versus P limitation of a given system may not convey the inherent complexity in governing conditions and processes.