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Importance of neutral processes varies in time and space: Evidence from dryland stream ecosystems


Many ecosystems experience strong temporal variability in environmental conditions; yet, a clear picture of how niche and neutral processes operate to determine community assembly in temporally variable systems remains elusive. In this study, we constructed neutral metacommunity models to assess the relative importance of neutral processes in a spatially and temporally variable ecosystem. We analyzed macroinvertebrate community data spanning multiple seasons and years from 20 sites in a Sonoran Desert river network in Arizona. The model goodness-of-fit was used to infer the importance of neutral processes. Averaging over eight stream flow conditions across three years, we found that neutral processes were more important in perennial streams than in non-perennial streams (intermittent and ephemeral streams). Averaging across perennial and non-perennial streams, we found that neutral processes were more important during very high flow and in low flow periods; whereas, at very low flows, the relative importance of neutral processes varied greatly. These findings were robust to the choice of model parameter values. Our study suggested that the net effect of disturbance on the relative importance of niche and neutral processes in community assembly varies non-monotonically with the severity of disturbance. In contrast to the prevailing view that disturbance promotes niche processes, we found that neutral processes could become more important when the severity of disturbance is beyond a certain threshold such that all organisms are adversely affected regardless of their biological traits and strategies.

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