1. Long-term studies in ecology are essential for understanding natural variability and in interpreting responses to disturbances and human perturbations. We assessed the long-term variability, stability and persistence of macroinvertebrate communities by analysing data from three regions in northern California with a mediterranean-climate. During the study period, precipitation either increased or decreased, and extreme drought events occurred in each region.
2. Temporal trends in precipitation resulted in shifts from ‘dry-year’ communities, dominated by taxa adapted to no or low flow, to ‘wet-year’ communities dominated by taxa adapted to high flows. The abundance of chironomid larvae was an important driver of community change. Directional change in community composition occurred at all sites and was correlated with precipitation patterns, with more dramatic change occurring in smaller streams.
3. All communities exhibited high to moderate persistence (defined by the presence/absence of a species) and moderate to low stability (defined by changes in abundance) over the study period. Stability and persistence were correlated with climatic variation (precipitation and El Niño Southern Oscillation) and stream size. Stability and persistence increased as a result of drought in small streams (first-order) but decreased in larger streams (second- and third-order). Communities from the dry season were less stable than those from the wet-season.
4. This study demonstrates the importance of long-term studies in capturing the effects of and recovery from rare events, such as the prolonged and extreme droughts considered here.