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Synthesis

Metacommunity theory aims to elucidate the relative influence of local and regional-scale processes in generating diversity patterns across the landscape. Metacommunity research has focused largely on assemblages of competing organisms within a single trophic level. Here, we test the ability of metacommunity models to predict the network structure of the aquatic food web found in the leaves of the northern pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea. The species-sorting and patch-dynamics models most accurately reproduced nine food web properties, suggesting that local-scale interactions play an important role in structuring Sarracenia food webs. Our approach can be applied to any well-resolved food web for which data are available from multiple locations.

The metacommunity framework explores the relative influence of local and regional-scale processes in generating diversity patterns across the landscape. Metacommunity models and empirical studies have focused mostly on assemblages of competing organisms within a single trophic level. Studies of multi-trophic metacommunities are predominantly restricted to simplified trophic motifs and rarely consider entire food webs. We tested the ability of the patch-dynamics, species-sorting, mass-effects, and neutral metacommunity models, as well as three hybrid models, to reproduce empirical patterns of food web structure and composition in the complex aquatic food web found in the northern pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea. We used empirical data to determine regional species pools and estimate dispersal probabilities, simulated local food-web dynamics, dispersed species from regional pools into local food webs at rates based on the assumptions of each metacommunity model, and tested their relative fits to empirical data on food-web structure. The species-sorting and patch-dynamics models most accurately reproduced nine food web properties, suggesting that local-scale interactions were important in structuring Sarracenia food webs. However, differences in dispersal abilities were also important in models that accurately reproduced empirical food web properties. Although the models were tested using pitcher-plant food webs, the approach we have developed can be applied to any well-resolved food web for which data are available from multiple locations.