Although phenotypic plasticity can be advantageous in fluctuating environments, it may come too late if the environment changes fast. Complementary chromatic adaptation is a colorful form of phenotypic plasticity, where cyanobacteria tune their pigmentation to the prevailing light spectrum. Here, we study the timescale of chromatic adaptation and its impact on competition among phytoplankton species exposed to fluctuating light colors. We parameterized a resource competition model using monoculture experiments with green and red picocyanobacteria and the cyanobacterium Pseudanabaena, which can change its color within approximately 7 days by chromatic adaptation. The model predictions were tested in competition experiments, where the incident light color switched between red and green at different frequencies (slow, intermediate, and fast). Pseudanabaena (the flexible phenotype) competitively excluded the green and red picocyanobacteria in all competition experiments. Strikingly, the rate of competitive exclusion was much faster when the flexible phenotype had sufficient time to fully adjust its pigmentation. Thus, the flexible phenotype benefited from its phenotypic plasticity if fluctuations in light color were relatively slow, corresponding to slow mixing processes or infrequent storms in their natural habitat. This shows that the timescale of phenotypic plasticity plays a key role during species interactions in fluctuating environments.
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