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Spatial gradients in species diversity of microscopic animals: the case of bdelloid rotifers at high altitude


*Diego Fontaneto, Dipartimento di Biologia, Università degli Studi di Milano, via Celoria 26, I-20133 Milan, Italy.


Aim  Organisms smaller than 2 mm appear not to follow the spatial patterns in richness and diversity commonly observed in macroscopic organisms. We describe spatial patterns in species diversity in a group of microscopic organisms, bdelloid rotifers, living in moss and lichen patches, in order to test the hypotheses of no relationship between species richness and composition and spatial gradients, suggested by previously published patterns in microscopic organisms.

Location  Moss and lichen patches as habitats for bdelloids, on high-elevation peaks at altitudes between 2984 and 4527 m a.s.l. across the Italian, French and Swiss Alps, with distances among sample sites ranging from 1 m to 420 km, in comparison with lower-elevation samples at altitudes from 850 to 1810 m a.s.l.

Methods  We sampled species assemblages of bdelloid rotifers living in isolated moss and lichen patches in 47 sites. We described the observed α, β and γ diversities; the heterogeneity of species assemblages; and the estimated number of species (incidence-based coverage estimator). Patterns in species distribution were analysed at three different levels: (1) habitat, comparing species richness on moss and lichen substrates, testing differences in α diversity and heterogeneity (anova), species composition (analysis of similarities test), and γ diversity (rarefaction curves); (2) altitude, comparing the observed richness with previously published data from locations well below 2000 m; and (3) distances between sites, correlating the matrix of Jaccard dissimilarities and the matrix of geographical distances with a Mantel test.

Results  Both species richness and species composition of bdelloid rotifers differed significantly between mosses and lichens at high elevations, but no difference was found in the heterogeneity of species assemblages. Alpha diversity was significantly lower at high-elevation than at low-elevation sites, but the estimated number of species was not reduced when compared with sites at low elevations. Geographical distance between sites had no effect on species composition in either mosses or lichens. The distribution of species was highly heterogeneous, with a low similarity among assemblages.

Main conclusions  As expected, bdelloids appear to occupy habitats selectively. The altitudinal gradient in species richness for bdelloid rotifers is limited to a decrease in α diversity only; such a decrease is not caused by a lower number of species (low γ diversity) being able to tolerate harsh conditions, and high-altitude species are not a subset of species living at lower elevations. The observed values of α, β and γ diversity at high altitudes in the Alps are compatible with the scenario of a very low number of available propagules because of the low density of patches of favourable habitat. Our results suggest that the geographical distribution of animals, and therefore biodiversity patterns, may be strongly influenced by animal size, as small organisms such as bdelloids appear to show spatial patterns that differ from those known in larger animals. Differences in body size should be taken into account carefully in future studies of biodiversity patterns.