• habitat;
  • scale;
  • abiotic factors;
  • cichlids;
  • Belize

Esselman PC, Allan JD. Relative influences of catchment- and reach-scale abiotic factors on freshwater fish communities in rivers of northeastern Mesoamerica. Ecology of Freshwater Fish 2010: 19: 439–454. © 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S

Abstract –  While the abiotic factors important to freshwater fish assemblages at a reach scale are well understood, studies of larger scale constraints have yielded variable conclusions, spurring a need for further studies in new biogeographic contexts. This study investigated the importance of catchment- and reach-scale abiotic factors to variation in freshwater fish assemblages in rivers of northeastern Mesoamerica. Abiotic variables and fish data from 72 sampling sites on main stem rivers of Belize were used with partial constrained ordination to determine the proportion of spatially structured and unstructured variation in fish presence and absence, relative abundance, and community metrics explained by catchment- and reach-scale environmental factors. Results showed that, combined, catchment and reach variables explained a large portion of the total variation in the fish assemblage data (54–75%), and that catchment environment explained a greater portion of variation (42–63%) than reach environment (34–50%). Variables representing landscape position (local elevation, watershed area) and their reach-level correlates (channel width, depth variation, and substrate) correlated strongly to the fish assemblage data. Our results suggest that landscape-scale factors have a stronger relative influence on assemblages than environmental conditions at the reach scale within our study area. These results contrast with past findings that showed greater local scale influence in landscapes with low anthropogenic disturbance levels. Our findings suggest that biodiversity conservation efforts should consider assemblage variation across a longitudinal gradient, and that a multi-catchment region is a biologically relevant scale for fish conservation planning and coordination in northeastern Mesoamerica.