1. Increasingly, ecologists conceptualize local communities as connected to a regional species pool rather than as isolated entities. By this paradigm, community structure is determined through the relative strengths of dispersal-driven regional effects and local environmental factors. However, despite explicit incorporation of dispersal, metacommunity models and frameworks often fail to capture the realities of natural systems by not accounting for the configuration of space within which organisms disperse. This shortcoming may be of particular consequence in riverine networks which consist of linearly -arranged, hierarchical, branching habitat elements. Our goal was to understand how constraints of network connectivity in riverine systems change the relative importance of local vs. regional factors in structuring communities.
2. We hypothesized that communities in more isolated headwaters of riverine networks would be structured by local forces, while mainstem sections would be structured by both local and regional processes. We examined these hypotheses using a spatially explicit regional analysis of riverine macroinvertebrate communities, focusing on change in community similarity with distance between local communities [i.e., distance-decay relationships; (DDRs)], and the change in environmental similarity with distance. Strong DDRs frequently indicate dispersal-driven dynamics.
3. There was no evidence of a DDR in headwater communities, supporting our hypothesis that dispersal is a weak structuring force. Furthermore, a positive relationship between community similarity and environmental similarity supported dynamics driven by local environmental factors (i.e., species sorting). In mainstem habitats, significant DDRs and community × environment similarity relationships suggested both dispersal-driven and environmental constraints on local community structure (i.e., mass effects).
4. We used species traits to compare communities characterized by low vs. high dispersal taxa. In headwaters, neither strength nor mode (in-network vs. out of network) of dispersal changed our results. However, outcomes in mainstems changed substantially with both dispersal mode and strength, further supporting the hypothesis that regional forces drive community dynamics in mainstems.
5. Our findings demonstrate that the balance of local and regional effects changes depending on location within riverine network with local (environmental) factors dictating community structure in headwaters, and regional (dispersal driven) forces dominating in mainstems.