How far details are important in ecosystem modelling: the case of multi-limiting nutrients in phytoplankton–zooplankton interactions

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We try to answer the question of to what extent details in nutrient uptake and phytoplankton physiology matter for population and community dynamics. To this end, we study how two nutrients interact in limiting phytoplankton growth. A popular formulation uses a product-rule for nutrient uptake, which we compare with that on the basis of synthesizing units. We first fit different nutrient uptake models to a dataset and conclude that the quantitative differences between the models are small. Then we study the sensitivity of phytoplankton growth and zooplankton–phytoplankton interactions (ZPi) models to uptake formulations. Two population models are compared; they are based on different assumptions on the relation between nutrient uptake and phytoplankton growth. We find that the population and community models are sensitive to uptake formulations. According to the uptake formulation used in the ZPi models, qualitative differences can be observed. Indeed, although two models based on functions with similar shapes have close equilibria, these can differ in stability properties. Since stability involves the derivatives of formulas, even if two formulas provide close values, large numerical differences in the stability criterion may occur after derivation. We conclude that mechanistic details can be of importance for community modelling.