Regional occupancy in unicellular eukaryotes: a reflection of niche breadth, habitat availability or size-related dispersal capacity?


Jani Heino, Finnish Environment Institute, Research Programme for Biodiversity, PO Box 413, University of Oulu, Oulu FIN-90014, Finland.


1. The distribution patterns of unicellular and multicellular organisms have recently been shown to differ profoundly, with the former probably being mostly cosmopolitan, whereas the latter are mostly restricted to certain regions. However, the within-region distribution patterns of these two organism groups may be rather similar.

2. We predicted that the degree of regional occupancy in unicellular eukaryotes would be related to niche characteristics, dispersal ability and size, as has been found previously for multicellular organisms. The niche characteristics we considered were niche position, that measures marginality in species habitat distribution, and niche breadth, that measures amplitude in species habitat distribution. Niche characteristics were determined using Outlying Mean Index (OMI) analysis.

3. We found that the regional occupancy in our model group of unicellular eukaryotes, stream diatoms, was primarily a reflection of the niche position of a species or, more generally, habitat availability. Thus, non-marginal species (i.e. species that occupied common habitat conditions across the region) tended to be more widely distributed than marginal species (i.e. species that were restricted to a limited range of rare habitat conditions). This finding was further supported by the general linear model, with niche position, niche breadth, maximum size and attachment mode as explanatory variables: niche position was by far the most important variable accounting for variability in regional occupancy, with significant amounts of additional variation related to niche breadth and maximum size of diatoms.

4. Thus, the degree of regional occupancy among unicellular eukaryotes may be primarily governed by habitat availability, supporting former findings for multicellular organisms.