Aim Niche theory emphasizes the importance of environmental conditions for the distribution and abundance of species. Using a macroecological approach our study aimed at identifying the important environmental gradients for spiders. We generated numerical values of niche position and niche width. We also investigated relationships between these niche properties as well as the degree of phylogenetic conservatism in order to draw conclusions about the evolution of the habitat niche.
Location Central Europe: lowlands of Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Methods We analysed 244 published spider communities from 70 habitat types by correspondence analysis. The resulting community scores were used to test for correlations with habitat characteristics. Species scores were used to derive niche position (mean scores) and niche width (standard deviation of scores). To test for niche conservatism we estimated variance components across the taxonomic hierarchy.
Results The first two axes of the correspondence analysis were correlated with shading and moisture, respectively. Niche width had a hump-shaped relationship to both environmental gradients. β-diversity was strikingly higher in open habitats than in forests. Habitat niche conservatism was lower than phylogenetic conservatism in body size.
Main conclusions Environmental factors are important drivers for the β-diversity of spiders, especially across open habitats. This underlines the importance of preserving the whole range of moisture conditions in open habitats. Narrow niches of species occurring at the ends of both environmental gradients indicate that adaptations to extreme habitats lead to constraints in ecological flexibility. Nevertheless, the habitat niche of species seems to evolve much faster than morphological or physiological traits.