Performance of the Redfield Ratio and a Family of Nutrient Limitation Indicators as Thresholds for Phytoplankton N vs. P Limitation

Robert Ptacnik*, Tom Andersen, Timo Tamminen

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    90 Citations (Scopus)


    We aim to define the best nutrient limitation indicator predicting phytoplankton biomass increase as a result of nutrient enrichment (N, P, or both). We compare the abilities of different indicators, based on chemical measurements of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) fractions in the initial plankton community, to predict the limiting factor for phytoplankton growth as inferred independently from short-term laboratory experiments on the same natural communities in a data set from NE Baltic Sea (Tamminen and Andersen, Mar Ecol Prog Ser 340:121-138, 2007). The best indicators had a true positive rate of about 80% for predicting both N and P limitation, but with a higher false positive rate for N than for P limitation (25 vs. 5%). Estimated threshold ratios for total nutrients (TN:TP) were substantially higher than the Redfield ratio, reflecting the relatively high amounts of biologically less available dissolved organic N in the study area. The best overall performing indicator, DIN:TP, had chlorophyll-response based threshold ratios far below Redfield, with N limitation below 2:1 and P limitation above 5:1 (by atoms). On the contrary, particulate N:P ratio was the overall worst predictor for N or P limitation, with values clustering around the Redfield N:P ratio (16:1, by atoms) independent of the limiting factor. Estimated threshold ratios based on inorganic nutrients (DIN:DIP) and so-called biologically available nutrients (BAN:BAP = (PON + DIN):(POP + DIP)) were also generally clearly above 16:1, indicating that the Redfield ratio rather reflects the transition from N limitation to combined N + P limitation, than to single limitation by P. Coastal systems are complex systems with regard to nutrient dynamics, historically considered to represent the transition from P-limited freshwater to N-limited marine systems. Our analysis shows that rather simple ratios reflect phytoplankton requirement for nutrients. Based on the high prediction performance, analytical considerations, and general data availability, the DIN:TP ratio appears to be the best indicator for inferring in situ N vs. P limitation of phytoplankton from chemical monitoring data.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1201-1214
    Number of pages14
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2010


    • Baltic sea
    • coastal ecosystems
    • eutrophication
    • indicators
    • phytoplankton
    • Redfield ratio
    • stoichiometry


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