1. Studies of species distributions across environmental gradients further our understanding of mechanisms regulating species diversity at the landscape scale. For some freshwater taxa the habitat gradient from small, shallow and temporary ponds to large, deep and permanent lakes has been shown to be an important environmental axis. Freshwater snails are key players in freshwater ecosystems, but there are no comprehensive studies of their distributions across the entire freshwater habitat gradient. Here we test the hypothesis that snail species in the family Physidae are distributed in a non-random manner across the habitat gradient. We sampled the snails, their predators and the abiotic environment of 61 ponds and lakes, spanning a wide range in depth and hydroperiod.
2. Temporary habitats had the lowest biomass of predators. Shallow permanent ponds had the highest biomass of invertebrate predators but an intermediate fish biomass. Deep ponds and lakes had the highest fish biomass and intermediate invertebrate biomass. Five species of physids occurred in the regional species pool and 60 of the 61 ponds and lakes surveyed contained physid snails. Each pond and lake contained an average of just 1.2 physid species, illustrating limited membership in local communities and substantial among-site heterogeneity in species composition.
3. Physids showed strong sorting along the habitat gradient, with Physa vernalis found in the shortest hydroperiod ponds and Aplexa elongata, P. gyrina, P. acuta and P. ancillaria found in habitats of successively greater permanence. When organised into a site-by-species incidence matrix with sites ordered according to their hydroperiods, we found the pattern of incidence to be highly coherent, showing that much of the heterogeneity in species composition from one pond to another is explained by hydroperiod. We also found that the number of species replacements along this gradient was higher than random, showing that replacement is more important than nesting in describing species composition in ponds of different hydroperiod.
4. Discriminant analysis showed that pond depth, invertebrate biomass and fish biomass were the best predictors of species composition. Analysis of these niche dimensions showed that P. vernalis and A. elongata were most successful in shallow, temporary ponds with few predators. P. gyrina and P. acuta were typically found in ponds of intermediate depth and high predator abundance. P. ancillaria was found in the deepest lakes, which had abundant fish predators but few invertebrate predators. Of the five species considered, P. ancillaria, P. vernalis and A. elongata were relatively specialised with regard to key habitat characteristics, P. gyrina was moderately generalised and P. acuta was remarkably generalised, since it alone occurred across the entire freshwater habitat gradient. The exceptional habitat breadth of P. acuta stands in contrast to distributional studies of other freshwater taxa and deserves further attention.