1. This study analysed changes occurring in Mediterranean stream fish assemblages over a sequence of dry years followed by a generally wet period (1991–98). Variations in assemblage attributes were quantified at the basin and stream reach scales, and related to variables reflecting the occurrence of unusually dry or wet conditions.
2. Assemblage variability increased along with the resolution of analysis, with little changes in species richness, composition and rank abundances, but significant variation in individual species abundances. Fluctuations in relative abundances were significantly affected by variables reflecting the severity of summer droughts and the occurrence of rainy springs. These patterns were evident at the basin scale, while variability at individual stream reaches tended to be higher and less related to rainfall patterns.
3. At least three response guilds to rainfall variation could be identified: two of the four abundant and widespread species (chub and loach) declined following dry years, whereas the two other core species (nase and eel) declined after rainy spring; one scarce native species (stickleback) increased in dry years.
4. Except at the two most upstream reaches, the assemblages tended to recover quickly to previous configuration after the changes occurring during the sequence of dry years.
5. Temporal variability of local assemblages was concordant among reaches but did not follow any consistent spatial pattern. Instead, spatial patterns in assemblage attributes changed over time in response to environmental variability, with a tendency for a disruption of upstream–downstream gradients following dry years.
6. Results supported the view that present-day droughts cause relatively small and transient changes to Mediterranean stream fish assemblages. However, longer and more severe droughts expected under altered future climates, may result in declines or local extinctions of the most sensitive species and their potential replacement by more resistant species. Changing drought regimes thus need to be duly considered in the development of conservation strategies for Mediterranean stream fish.