1. Ecological communities can be relatively stable for long periods of time, and then, often as a result of disturbance, transition rapidly to a novel state. When communities fail to recover to pre-disturbance configurations, they are said to have experienced a regime shift or to be in an alternative stable state.
2. In this 8-year study, we quantified the effects of complete water loss and subsequent altered disturbance regime on aquatic insect communities inhabiting a formerly perennial desert stream. We monitored two study pools seasonally for 4 years before and 4 years after the transition from perennial to intermittent flow to evaluate pre-drying community dynamics and post-drying recovery trajectories.
3. Mean species richness was not affected by the transition to intermittent flow, though seasonal patterns of richness did change. Sample densities were much higher in post-drying samples.
4. The stream pool communities underwent a catastrophic regime shift after transition to intermittent flow, moving to an alternative stable state with novel seasonal trajectories, and did not recover to pre-drying configurations after 4 years. Six invertebrate species were extirpated by the initial drying event, while other species were as much as 40 times more abundant in post-drying samples. In general, large-bodied top predators were extirpated from the system and replaced with high abundances of smaller-bodied mesopredators.
5. Our results suggest that the loss of perennial flow caused by intensified droughts and water withdrawals could lead to significant changes in community structure and species composition at local and regional scales.