Sheldon spectrum and the plankton paradox: two sides of the same coin-a trait-based plankton size-spectrum model Articles uri icon

publication date

  • January 2018

start page

  • 67

end page

  • 96


  • 1-2


  • 76

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0303-6812

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1432-1416


  • The Sheldon spectrum describes a remarkable regularity in aquatic ecosystems: the biomass density as a function of logarithmic body mass is approximately constant over many orders of magnitude. While size-spectrum models have explained this phenomenon for assemblages of multicellular organisms, this paper introduces a species-resolved size-spectrum model to explain the phenomenon in unicellular plankton. A Sheldon spectrum spanning the cell-size range of unicellular plankton necessarily consists of a large number of coexisting species covering a wide range of characteristic sizes. The coexistence of many phytoplankton species feeding on a small number of resources is known as the Paradox of the Plankton. Our model resolves the paradox by showing that coexistence is facilitated by the allometric scaling of four physiological rates. Two of the allometries have empirical support, the remaining two emerge from predator-prey interactions exactly when the abundances follow a Sheldon spectrum. Our plankton model is a scale-invariant trait-based size-spectrum model: it describes the abundance of phyto- and zooplankton cells as a function of both size and species trait (the maximal size before cell division). It incorporates growth due to resource consumption and predation on smaller cells, death due to predation, and a flexible cell division process. We give analytic solutions at steady state for both the within-species size distributions and the relative abundances across species.


  • Biology and Biomedicine
  • Mathematics


  • plankton; coexistence; allometry; size-spectrum; scale-invariance; cell division