Aim Biodiversity patterns along altitudinal gradients are less studied in aquatic than terrestrial systems, even though aquatic sites provide a more homogeneous environment independent of moisture constraints. We studied the altitudinal species richness pattern for planktonic rotifers in freshwater lakes and identified the environmental predictors for which altitude is a proxy.
Location Two hundred and eighteen lakes of Trentino–South Tyrol (Italy) in the eastern Alps; lakes covered 98% (range 65–2960 m above sea level) of the altitudinal gradient in the Alps.
Methods We performed: (1) linear regression between species richness and altitude to evaluate the general pattern, (2) multiple linear regression between species richness and environmental predictors excluding altitude to identify the most important predictors, and (3) linear regression between the residuals of the best model of step (2) and altitude to investigate any additional explanatory power of altitude. Selection of environmental predictors was based on limnological importance and non-parametric Spearman correlations. We applied ordinary least squares regression, generalized linear, and generalized least squares modelling to select the most statistically appropriate model.
Results Rotifer species richness showed a monotonic decrease with altitude independent of scale effects. Species richness could be explained (R2= 51%) by lake area as a proxy for habitat diversity, reactive silica and total phosphorus as proxies for productivity, water temperature as a proxy for energy, nitrate as a proxy for human influence and north–south and east–west directions as covariates. These predictors completely accounted for the species richness–altitude pattern, and altitude had no additional effect on species richness.
Main conclusions The linear decrease of species richness along the altitudinal gradient was related to the interplay of habitat diversity, productivity, heat content and human influence. These factors are the same in terrestrial and aquatic habitats, but the greater environmental stability of aquatic systems seems to favour a linear pattern.