• cellular automata;
  • changing environment;
  • clonal plant;
  • division of labour;
  • modular organization;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • spatial heterogeneity;
  • spatial population dynamics


  • • 
    Plants must cope with environmental variation in space and time. Phenotypic plasticity allows them to adjust their form and function to small-scale variations in habitat quality. Empirical studies have shown that stoloniferous plants can exploit heterogeneous habitats through plastic ramet specialization and internal resource exchange (division of labour).
  • • 
    Here we present a spatially explicit simulation model to explore costs and benefits of plasticity in spatio-temporally heterogeneous environments. We investigated the performance of three plant strategies in pairwise competition. The nonplastic strategy was unable to specialize. The autonomous plastic strategy displayed localized responses to external resource signals. In the coordinated plastic strategy, localized responses could be modified by internal demand signals from connected modules.
  • • 
    Plasticity in resource uptake proved beneficial in a broad range of environments. Modular coordination was beneficial under virtually all realistic conditions, especially if resource supplies did not closely match resource needs.
  • • 
    The benefits of division of labour extend considerably beyond the parameter combination covered by empirical studies. Our model provides a general framework for evaluating the benefits, costs and limits of plasticity in spatio-temporally heterogeneous habitats.