Contrasts between habitat generalists and specialists: an empirical extension to the basic metacommunity framework


Emergence of the metacommunity concept has made a substantial contribution to better understanding of the community composition and dynamics in a regional context. However, long-term field data for testing of available metacommunity models are still scarce, and the extent to which these models apply to the real world remains unknown. Tests conducted so far have largely sought to fit data on the entire regional set of species to one of several metacommunity models, implicitly assuming that all species operate similarly over the same set of sites. However, species differ in their habitat use. These differences can, in the most general terms, be expressed as a gradient of habitat specialization (ranging from habitat specialists to habitat generalists). We postulate that such differences in habitat specialization will have implications for metacommunity dynamics. Specifically, we predict that specialists respond more to local processes and generalists respond to regional spatial processes. We tested these predictions using natural microcosm communities for which long-term (nine-year) environmental and population dynamics data were available. We used redundancy analysis to determine the proportion of variation explained by environmental and spatial factors. We repeated this analysis to explain variation in the entire regional set of species, in generalist species only, and in specialists only. We further used ANOVA to test for differences in the proportions of explained variation. We found that habitat specialists responded primarily to environmental factors and habitat generalists responded mainly to spatial factors. Thus, from the metacommunity perspective, the dynamics of habitat specialists are best explained by a combination of species sorting and mass effects, while that of habitat generalists are best explained by patch dynamics and neutral models. Consequently, we infer that a natural metacommunity can exhibit complicated dynamics, with some groups of species (e.g., habitat specialists) governed according to environmental processes and other groups (e.g., habitat generalists) governed mainly by dispersal processes.