Dispersal-diversity relationships and ecosystem functioning in pond metacommunities

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Howeth, Jennifer Gail, 1979-

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Insights gained from metapopulation and metacommunity biology indicate that the connectivity of subpopulations and communities by species dispersal can profoundly impact population dynamics, community structure, and ecosystem attributes. Recent advancements in metacommunity theory further suggest that the rate of species dispersal among local communities can be important in altering local and regional species richness and ecosystem functioning. The role of species dispersal rates relative to patch-type heterogeneity and associated intrinsic community structuring mechanisms (competition, predation) in affecting diversity of multi-trophic communities, however, remains unknown. Here, I address the relative influence of regional and local processes in altering species richness and ecosystem functioning at multiple spatial scales in freshwater pond metacommunities. In a series of experiments, I employed pond mesocosm metacommunities to manipulate planktonic species dispersal rates and the incidence of top predators which differed in prey selectivity. The consequences of dispersal and predation to zooplankton species richness, trophic structure, ecosystem stability, and prey traits were evaluated. Generally, my findings support predictions from metacommunity models, and demonstrate that dispersal strongly affects community and ecosystem-level properties. In accord with dispersal-diversity theory, dispersal rate affected species richness and ecosystem stability at multiple spatial scales. The presence, but not the rate, of dispersal had strong effects on the partitioning of biomass amongst producers, grazers, and top predators. The relative influence of predation on local and metacommunity structure varied across experiments and largely depended upon predator identity and the degree of feeding specialization. The research presented herein is some of the first work to evaluate how species dispersal rates can affect dispersal-diversity relationships, diversity-stability relationships, trophic structure, and the distribution of prey traits in metacommunities. In addition to advancing ecological theory, the results have important implications for conservation as fragmented landscapes become increasingly prevalent, and local and regional biotas modified. Ultimately, it proves critical to identify drivers of local and regional species richness in order to maintain biotic integrity at the global scale.