• biodiversity;
  • community ecology;
  • dendritic networks;
  • headwater streams;
  • spatial and temporal scale


  1. Current ecological frameworks emphasize the relative importance of local and regional drivers for structuring species communities. However, most research has been carried out in systems with discrete habitat boundaries and a clear insular structure. Stream networks deviate from the insular structure and can serve as excellent model systems for studying hierarchical community dynamics over different temporal and spatial extents.
  2. We used benthic invertebrate data from streams in a small northern Swedish catchment to test whether metacommunity dynamics change between seasons, across spatial hierarchies (i.e. at the whole catchment scale vs. the scales of first-order and second/third-order sites within the catchment) and between stream-order groups.
  3. We assessed metacommunity structure as a function of three relevant dispersal dimensions (directional downstream processes, along-stream dispersal and overland dispersal). These dispersal dimensions were related to species groups with relevant dispersal traits (flying capacity, drift propensity) and dispersal capacities (weak vs. strong) to elucidate whether the observed spatial signals were due to dispersal limitation or mass effects.
  4. Results showed complex community organization that varied between seasons, with the scale of observation, and with stream order. The importance of spatial factors and specific dispersal dimensions was highly dependent on the time of sampling and the scale of observation. The importance of environmental factors was more consistent in our analyses, but their effect on species community structure peaked at first-order sites. Our analyses of species dispersal traits were not unequivocal, but indicated that both mass effects and dispersal limitation could simultaneously contribute to the spatial signal at the scale of the whole catchment through different dispersal pathways.
  5. We conclude that the study of hierarchically organized ecosystems uncovers complex patterns of metacommunity organization that may deviate substantially from those of systems with insular structure and discrete habitat boundaries. Moreover, we show that dispersal constraints imposed by the dendritic structure of stream networks and distinct dispersal mechanisms (e.g. dispersal limitation) may be evident also at very small spatial extents. Thus, even at this small scale, a landscape management approach that takes the dendritic nature of stream networks into account is needed to effectively conserve stream biodiversity.