In most natural environments as well as in engineered environments, such as wastewater treatment plants, ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) experience fluctuating substrate concentrations. Several physiological traits, such as low maintenance energy demand and decay rate, cell-to-cell communication, cell mobility, stable enzymes and RNAs, could allow AOB to maintain themselves under unfavourable circumstances. This review examines whether AOB possess such traits and how these traits might offer advantages over competing organisms such as heterotrophic bacteria during periods of starvation. In addition, within the AOB groups, differences exist in adaptation to and competitiveness under conditions of high or low ammonia or oxygen concentrations. Because these findings are of importance with regard to the ecology and activity of AOB in natural and engineered environments, concluding remarks are directed towards future research objectives that may clarify unanswered questions, thereby contributing to the general knowledge of the ecology and activity of ammonia oxidizers.