1. Refugia are critical to the persistence of individuals, populations and communities in disturbed environments, yet few studies have considered how the position of refugia within the landscape interacts with the behavioural responses of component species to determine the influence of disturbance events on mobile animals.
2. An 18-month quantitative electrofishing survey was undertaken on the Selwyn River, a stream that is intermittent in its middle reaches, to determine how the direction and distance to refugia affect the response of fish populations to drying, and how landscape context interacts with flow permanence to produce spatial patterns in communities.
3. Overall, the propensity of fish to take refuge in perennial reaches during drying episodes, and the rate and extent of recolonization from these refugia upon rewetting, depended upon the direction and distance to refugia and the behaviour of component species.
4. In the upper river, Canterbury galaxias (Galaxias vulgaris), upland bullies (Gobiomorphus breviceps) and brown trout (Salmo trutta) migrated upstream to permanent water as the stream dried from the bottom up, but frequent drying and slow recolonization by most species combined to produce a fish community in intermittent reaches that was quantitatively and qualitatively different to that in neighbouring perennial reaches.
5. In the lower river, fish did not appear to migrate downstream to permanent water as the stream dried from the top down, but a lower frequency of drying episodes and faster recolonization by upland bullies and eels (Anguilla spp.) from downstream refugia allowed the fish community in intermittent reaches to converge with that in neighbouring perennial reaches during prolonged wetted periods.
6. Longitudinal patterns of increasing fish density and species richness with flow permanence are interpreted as the product of species-specific responses to drying events and the spatial position of refugia within the riverscape.