Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit


Date of this Version



PLoS ONE 10(12): e0146053.



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The adaptive cycle was proposed as a conceptual model to portray patterns of change in complex systems. Despite the model having potential for elucidating change across systems, it has been used mainly as a metaphor, describing system dynamics qualitatively. We use a quantitative approach for testing premises (reorganisation, conservatism, adaptation) in the adaptive cycle, using Baltic Sea phytoplankton communities as an example of such complex system dynamics. Phytoplankton organizes in recurring spring and summer blooms, a well-established paradigm in planktology and succession theory, with characteristic temporal trajectories during blooms that may be consistent with adaptive cycle phases. We used long-term (1994–2011) data and multivariate analysis of community structure to assess key components of the adaptive cycle. Specifically, we tested predictions about: reorganisation: spring and summer blooms comprise distinct community states; conservatism: community trajectories during individual adaptive cycles are conservative; and adaptation: phytoplankton species during blooms change in the long term. All predictions were supported by our analyses. Results suggest that traditional ecological paradigms such as phytoplankton successional models have potential for moving the adaptive cycle from a metaphor to a framework that can improve our understanding how complex systems organize and reorganize following collapse. Quantifying reorganization, conservatism and adaptation provides opportunities to cope with the intricacies and uncertainties associated with fast ecological change, driven by shifting system controls. Ultimately, combining traditional ecological paradigms with heuristics of complex system dynamics using quantitative approaches may help refine ecological theory and improve our understanding of the resilience of ecosystems.