SUMMARY 1. Dispersal ability is an important ecological factor that can influence population structure. In an attempt to determine the extent that the pattern of genetic differentiation is correlated with dispersal ability in stream-dwelling aquatic insects, we used the amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) technique to characterise genetic variation in four aquatic insect species: Gumaga griseola (Trichoptera: Sericostomatidae), Helicopsyche mexicana (Trichoptera: Helicopsychidae), Psephenus montanus (Coleoptera: Psephenidae) and Ambrysus thermarum (Hemiptera: Naucoridae). Individuals were sampled from several sites within two adjacent catchments in the Arizona White Mountains. In addition to the genetic analyses, a 20-week-long trapping study was used to determine the relative dispersal ability of adults of the four species examined.
2. We obtained hierarchical indicators of genetic differentiation for catchments, sites within catchments and sites across the region examined. Overall, average estimators of genetic differentiation (F-statistics) were consistent with direct observations of organismal movement, although it was our direct observations on adult insect flight that permitted us to interpret our results correctly. This was because of the fact that a lack of genetic differentiation across watersheds can be interpreted in two ways.
3. In contrast to F-statistics, patterns of genetic isolation by distance for each species more clearly reflected dispersal ability, suggesting that such analytical approaches provide less ambiguous information about the importance of gene flow in the hierarchical partitioning of genetic variation in stream organisms.