1. The persistence of biological assemblages is positively affected by spatial heterogeneity. This influence may be indirect, through increased species richness. Another possibility is the increased availability of refuges from disturbances, which would prevent local loss.
2. We conducted a field experiment to test the hypothesis that greater roughness (a form of spatial heterogeneity) on the surface of substrata allows higher persistence of assemblages of stream benthic algae and that this relationship does not depend on species richness. Samples were taken on six occasions from smooth and rough artificial substrata used for algal colonisation. We calculated the persistence of assemblages using two analytical approaches: the mean distance to group centroid and the sum of the Euclidean distances between consecutive sampling occasions, both in a multivariate space. We also subsampled the data to take into account differences in species richness between treatments and thus to evaluate the effect of species richness on persistence.
3. Assemblages on rough substrata were more persistent than assemblages on smooth substrata. The effects detected were not due to the greater species richness on rough substrata, since a higher persistence of the assemblages on rough substrata remained after the subsampling procedures.
4. Our results indicate a strong positive relationship between substratum roughness and the persistence of stream benthic algal assemblages. We suggest that this is due to the presence of physical refuges in heterogeneous habitats.