1. The general importance of metacommunity and metapopulation theories is poorly understood because few studies have examined responses of the suite of species that occupy the same fragmented landscape. In this study, we examined the importance of spatial ecological theories using a large-scale, naturally fragmented landscape.
2. We measured the occurrence and abundance of 44 common beetle species in 31 natural rainforest fragments in Tasmania, Australia. We tested for an effect on beetle distribution of geographic variables (patch area, patch isolation and amount of surrounding habitat) and of environmental variables based on plant species, after first accounting for spatial autocorrelation using principal coordinates of neighbour matrices. The environmental variables described a productivity gradient and a post-fire succession from eucalypt-dominated forest to late-successional rainforest.
3. Few species had distributions consistent with a metapopulation. However, the amount of surrounding habitat and patch isolation influenced the occurrence or abundance of 30% of beetle species, implying that dispersal into or out of patches was an important process.
4. Three species showed a distribution that could arise by interactions with dominant competitors or predators with higher occurrence in small patches.
5. Environmental effects were more commonly observed than spatial effects. Twenty-three per cent of species showed evidence of habitat-driven, deterministic metapopulations. Furthermore, almost half of the species were influenced by the plant succession or productivity gradient, including effects at the within-patch, patch and regional scales. The beetle succession involved an increase in the frequency of many species, and the addition of new species, with little evidence of species turnover. Niche-related ecological theory such as the species-sorting metacommunity theory was therefore the most broadly applicable concept.
6. We conclude that classic and source-sink metapopulations are probably rare in this large-scale, naturally fragmented system, although dispersal processes like those occurring in metapopulations may have a substantial influence on community composition. However, deterministic processes (niche specialisation, species-sorting metacommunities and deterministic metapopulations) drive the occurrence or frequency of the majority of species. We urge further research into the prevalence of spatial ecological processes in large-scale natural ecosystems to expand our understanding of the processes that may be important in nature.