In keeping with the theme of this volume, the present article commemorates the 50 years of Hutchinson's (Am Nat 93:145-159, 1959) famous publication on the 'very general question of animal diversity', which obviously leads to the more important question regarding the driving forces of biodiversity and their limitation in various habitats. The study of phytoplankton in large lakes is a challenging task which requires the use of a wide variety of techniques to capture the range of spatial and temporal variations. The analysis of marker pigments may provide an adequate tool for phytoplankton surveys in large water bodies, thanks to automated analysis for processing numerous individual samples, and by achieving sufficient taxonomic resolution for ecological studies. Chlorophylls and carotenoids were analysed by HPLC in water column samples of Lake Tanganyika from 2002 through 2006, at two study sites, off Kigoma (north basin) and off Mpulungu (south basin). Using the CHEMTAX software for calculating contributions of the main algal groups to chlorophyll a, variations of phytoplankton composition and biomass were determined. We also investigated selected samples according to standard taxonomic techniques for elucidating the dominant species composition. Most of the phytoplankton biomass was located in the 0-40 m layer, with maxima at 0 or 20 m, and more rarely at 40 m. Deep chlorophyll maxima (DCM) and surface 'blooms' were occasionally observed. The phytoplankton assemblage was essentially dominated by chlorophytes and cyanobacteria, with diatoms developing mainly in the dry season. The dominant cyanobacteria were very small unicells (mostly Synechococcus), which were much more abundant in the southern basin, whereas green algae dominated on average at the northern site. A canonical correspondence analysis (CCA) including the main limnological variables, dissolved nutrients and zooplankton abundance was run to explore environment-phytoplankton relations. The CCA points to physical factors, site and season as key determinants of the phytoplankton assemblage, but also indicates a significant role, depending on the studied site, of calanoid copepods and of nauplii stages. Our data suggest that the factors allowing coexistence of several phytoplankton taxa in the pelagic zone of Lake Tanganyika are likely differential vertical distribution in the water column, which allows spatial partitioning of light and nutrients, and temporal variability (occurring at time scales preventing long-term dominance by a single taxon), along with effects of predation by grazers.