1. Many studies have addressed either community models (e.g. Clementsian versus Gleasonian gradients) or assembly rules (e.g. nestedness, checkerboards) for higher plant and animal communities, but very few studies have examined different non-random distribution patterns simultaneously with the same data set. Even fewer studies have addressed generalities in the distribution patterns of unicellular organisms, such as diatoms.
2. We studied non-randomness in the spatial distribution and community composition of stream diatoms. Our data consisted of diatom surveys from 47 boreal headwater streams and small rivers in northern Finland. Our analytical approaches included ordinations, cluster analysis, null model analyses, and associated randomisation tests.
3. Stream diatom communities did not follow discrete Clementsian community types, where multiple species occur exclusively in a single community type. Rather, diatom species showed rather individualistic responses, leading to continuous Gleasonian variability in community composition.
4. Although continuous variability was the dominating pattern in the data, diatoms also showed significant nestedness and less overlap in species distribution than expected by chance. However, these patterns were probably only secondary signals from species’ individualistic responses to the environment.
5. Although unicellular organisms, such as diatoms, differ from multicellular organisms in several biological characteristics, they nevertheless appear to show largely similar non-random distribution patterns previously found for higher plants and metazoans.