In aquatic biology, the paradox of the plankton describes the situation in which a limited range of resources (light, nutrients) supports a much wider range of planktonic organisms. The paradox results from the competitive exclusion principle (sometimes referred to as Gause's Law), which suggests that when two species compete for the same resource, ultimately only one will persist and the other will be driven to extinction. Phytoplankton life is diverse at all phylogenetic levels despite the limited range of resources (e.g. light, nitrate, phosphate, silicic acid, iron) for which they compete amongst themselves.
The paradox was originally described in 1961 by limnologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson, who proposed that the paradox could be resolved by factors such as vertical gradients of light or turbulence, symbiosis or commensalism, differential predation, or constantly changing environmental conditions. More recent work has proposed that the paradox can be resolved by factors such as: size-selective grazing; spatio-temporal heterogeneity; and environmental fluctuations. More generally, some researchers suggest that ecological and environmental factors continually interact such that the planktonic habitat never reaches an equilibrium for which a single species is favoured.
See also 
- Unified neutral theory of biodiversity, a theory that purports to explain the paradox
- Hutchinson, G. E. (1961) The paradox of the plankton. American Naturalist 95, 137-145.
- Wiggert, J.D., Haskell, A.G.E., Paffenhofer, G.A., Hofmann, E.E. and Klinck, J.M. (2005) The role of feeding behavior in sustaining copepod populations in the tropical ocean. Journal of Plankton Research 27, 1013-1031.
- Miyazaki, T., Tainaka, K., Togashi, T., Suzuki, T. and Yoshimura, J. (2006) Spatial coexistence of phytoplankton species in ecological timescale. Population Ecology 48(2), 107-112.
- Descamps-Julien, B. and Gonzalez, A. (2005) Stable coexistence in a fluctuating environment: An experimental demonstration. Ecology 86, 2815-2824.
- Scheffer, M., Rinaldi, S., Huisman, J. and Weissing, F.J. (2003) Why plankton communities have no equilibrium: solutions to the paradox. Hydrobiologia 491, 9-18.
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