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Distance decay of similarity in freshwater communities: do macro- and microorganisms follow the same rules?


Anna Astorga, Department of Biology, PO Box 3000, FI-90014, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland. E-mail:


Aim  An intensively debated issue in macroecology is whether unicellular organisms show biogeographic patterns different from those of macroorganisms. One aspect of this debate addresses beta diversity, that is, do microbial organisms exhibit distance-decay patterns similar to those of macroorganisms? And if so, is the decay of community similarity caused by spatially limited dispersal or by niche-related factors? We studied the community similarity of stream diatoms, macroinvertebrates and bryophytes across the same set of sites in relation to environmental and geographic distance.

Location  A geographical gradient of c. 1100 km in Finland.

Methods  We first identified the subset of environmental variables that produced the highest correlation with community similarities for each taxonomic group. Based on these variables, we used partial Mantel tests to separate the independent influences of environmental and geographical distance for distance decay of community similarity, separately for diatoms, bryophytes and macroinvertebrates. Finally, macroinvertebrates were divided into three groups based on their different dispersal categories and a partial Mantel test was used to assess whether each of these groups were differently affected by environmental versus geographic distance, i.e. is dispersal a key factor in tests of niche versus neutral models.

Results  The level of environmental control was by far the strongest for diatoms; however, all groups were controlled more by environmental factors than by limited dispersal. Macroinvertebrate species with low dispersal ability were significantly related to geographic distance, while more effective dispersers showed no relationship to geography but were instead strongly related to environmental distance.

Main conclusions  Our results suggest that patterns between macro- and microorganisms are not fundamentally different, but the level of environmental control varies according to dispersal ability. The relative importance of niche versus dispersal processes is not simply a function of organism size but other traits (e.g. life-history type, dispersal capacity) may obscure this relationship.