1. Modern theories of species coexistence recognize the importance of environmental heterogeneity.
2. Despite the existence of many observational studies, few experimental studies have evaluated the extent to which, and mechanisms by which, fixed spatial heterogeneity increases community diversity and alters community structure.
3 In experimental protist communities, we found that non-spatial mechanisms unrelated to heterogeneity were responsible for a large component of baseline diversity. Above this baseline, fixed spatial heterogeneity produced small but predictable increases in metacommunity diversity through species sorting, while heterogeneity and dispersal together altered local community structure (composition and relative abundance) through mass effects.
4. Our study illustrates that heterogeneity is not always the strongest driver of diversity, while experimentally demonstrating mechanisms by which heterogeneity alters community structure.