1. Non-consumptive effects of predators are increasingly recognized as important drivers of community assembly and structure. Specifically, habitat selection responses to top predators during colonization and oviposition can lead to large differences in aquatic community structure, composition and diversity.
2. These differences among communities due to predators may develop as communities assemble, potentially altering the relative quality of predator vs. predator-free habitats through time. If so, community assembly would be expected to modify the subsequent behavioural responses of colonists to habitats containing top predators. Here, we test this hypothesis by manipulating community assembly and the presence of fish in experimental ponds and measuring their independent and combined effects on patterns of colonization by insects and amphibians.
3. Assembly modified habitat selection of dytscid beetles and hylid frogs by decreasing or even reversing avoidance of pools containing blue-spotted sunfish (Enneacanthus gloriosus). However, not all habitat selection responses to fish depended on assembly history. Hydrophilid beetles and mosquitoes avoided fish while chironomids were attracted to fish pools, regardless of assembly history.
4. Our results show that community assembly causes taxa-dependent feedbacks that can modify avoidance of habitats containing a top predator. Thus, non-consumptive effects of a top predator on community structure change as communities assemble and effects of competitors and other predators combine with the direct effects of top predators to shape colonization.
5. This work reinforces the importance of habitat selection for community assembly in aquatic systems, while illustrating the range of factors that may influence colonization rates and resulting community structure. Directly manipulating communities both during colonization and post-colonization is critical for elucidating how sequential processes interact to shape communities.