When designing models for predicting phytoplankton biomass or characterizing traits, it is useful to aggregate the myriad of species into a few biologically meaningful groups and focus on group-level attributes, the common practice being to combine phytoplankton species by functional types. However, biogeochemists and plankton ecologists debate the most applicable grouping for describing phytoplankton biomass patterns and predicting future community structure. Although trait-based approaches are increasingly being advocated, methods are missing for the generation of trait-based taxa as alternatives to functional types. Here we introduce such a method and demonstrate the usefulness of the resulting clustering with field data. We parameterize a Bayesian model of biomass dynamics and analyze long-term phytoplankton data collected at Station L4 in the Western English Channel between April 2003 and December 2009. We examine the tradeoffs encountered regarding trait characterization and biomass prediction when aggregating biomass by (1) functional types, (2) the trait-based clusters generated by our method, and (3) total biomass. The model conveniently extracted trait values under the trait-based clustering, but required well-constrained priors under the functional type categorization. It also more accurately predicted total biomass under the trait-based clustering and the total biomass aggregation with comparable root mean squared prediction errors, which were roughly five-fold lower than under the functional type grouping. Although the total biomass grouping ignores taxonomic differences in phytoplankton traits, it predicts total biomass change as well as the trait-based clustering. Our results corroborate the value of trait-based approaches in investigating the mechanisms underlying phytoplankton biomass dynamics and predicting the community response to environmental changes.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited