• Beta diversity;
  • benthic macroinvertebrates;
  • biodiversity conservation;
  • human-induced stress;
  • natural stress;
  • nestedness;
  • species distributions;
  • stress specialists;
  • turnover



We hypothesized that mechanisms underlying beta diversity in rivers would differ between gradients where (1) natural stressors result in progressive species turnover with high specificity and (2) anthropogenic stressors result in the loss of specialist taxa thus giving rise to nestedness.


Great Britain, the Iberian Peninsula and the Himalayan Mountains.


We analysed five datasets describing benthic macroinvertebrates sampled along natural (elevation, salinity) and anthropogenic (acidity, metals, land use) stress gradients. Predictions were tested by fitting models relating species richness and beta-diversity components (total, turnover and nestedness dissimilarities) to putative stress intensity (i.e. the degree to which a particular environmental constraint filters species occurrence).


Stress intensity accounted for most of the variability in species richness (r2 = 0.64–0.93), which declined with increasing stress. Dissimilarity in community composition between locations increased with the difference in stress intensity for all datasets. For natural stressors, beta-diversity patterns mainly reflected species turnover, whilst for anthropogenic stressors beta diversity mainly reflected nesting of subsets of species as stress intensity increased.

Main conclusions

Our results support the hypothesis that natural and anthropogenic stressors generate contrasting patterns in beta diversity that arise through different mechanisms.