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Novel methodological tool helps detect synergistic phenomena in phytoplankton growth

March 28, 2019

Researchers have developed a new model allowing them to observe the key drivers of phytoplankton growth (blooms) patterns in the seas surrounding the United Kingdom, according to a study in PLOS Computational Biology, by Lawrence W. Sheppard, from University of Kansas, USA, and colleagues.

The size of a bloom may vary in size over time, with different areas of the same ocean having synchronized fluctuations in phytoplankton growth- a phenomenon known as spatial synchrony. However, the primary mechanisms of phytoplankton spatial synchrony are not well understood. To better understand the spatial synchrony of phytoplankton blooms, the researchers developed a new statistical tool allowing them to observe the interaction among different variables influencing phytoplankton abundance over time.

Sheppard and colleagues identified a synergistic effect between the variables (water temperature and phytoplankton predation) influencing spatial synchrony. The statistical model they developed for the study also provides a new tool applicable in a range of ecological contexts. According to the authors, "The wavelet-based statistical modelling approach we used can be applied anywhere that different drivers with their own timescales are acting on an important natural variable, to quantify and disentangle their combined effects."

Although further research is needed to better understand the complex impacts of climate change on the spatial synchrony phenomenon, the authors are confident their new modelling approach provides a new method for analyzing the individual factors driving the synergistic effects occurring in different natural systems. The authors suggest, "This is the first time that such a reinforcement mechanism has been observed but it is reasonable to believe that it may be widespread in ecology and natural systems. Until our new methods were developed the statistical tools to detect this phenomenon did not exist."
Peer-reviewed; Simulation / modelling; Cells

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS Computational Biology:

Citation: Sheppard LW, Defriez EJ, Reid PC, Reuman DC (2019) Synchrony is more than its top-down and climatic parts: interacting Moran effects on phytoplankton in British seas. PLoS Comput Biol 15(3): e1006744.

Funding: LWS and DCR were partially supported by UK Natural Environment Research Council grants NE/H020705/1, NE/I010963/1, and NE/I011889/1 (, the James S McDonnell Foundation (, US National Science Foundation grants 1442595 and 1714195 (, and funding from the University of Kansas ( Travel was facilitated by US National Science Foundation grant 1225529 ( The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


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