1. We used the habitat template approach to test the hypothesis that substratum stability, freezing and nutrient supply were determinants of community structure in 19 headwater streams of arctic Alaska. Streams were selected from five categories: glacier (n = 3), mountain (4), mountain spring (4), tundra spring (4) and tundra (4).
2. Bed movement among streams ranged from 0 to 97% during a ∼2-month summer season. Glacier and mountain streams had significantly higher bed movement than tundra and spring streams (P < 0.001).
3. All glacier and tundra streams froze solid during winter; all mountain spring streams remained unfrozen. Freezing among mountain and tundra spring streams was variable, with a subset of streams flowing throughout winter.
4. With the exception of glacier streams, which showed high concentrations of NH4+ and NO3− (P < 0.001), differences in nutrient concentrations among stream types were not significant.
5. Algal taxon richness was greatest in tundra springs (13 taxa) and lowest in glacier streams (five taxa, P < 0.001), as was algal biovolume (7350 versus 687 mm3 m−2, P < 0.001). Macroinvertebrate taxon richness was lower in glacier streams (4.7 ± 1.7, P < 0.005) than the other stream types (20.5–25.0 taxa), and biomass was greater in mountain springs (4837 mg m−2) and tundra springs (3367 mg m−2, P < 0.001).
6. Multidimensional scaling and multiple regression analyses of macroinvertebrate (biomass) and periphyton (biovolume) indicated that a 2-dimensional habitat template with bed movement and freezing as axes provides an accurate model of major factors controlling the community structure of headwater streams in arctic Alaska.