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Geographic patterns of diversity in streams are predicted by a multivariate model of disturbance and productivity


Univariate explanations of biodiversity have often failed to account for broad-scale patterns in species richness. As a result, increased attention has been paid to the development and testing of more synthetic multivariate hypotheses. One class of multivariate hypotheses, founded in successional diversity theory, predict that species richness is jointly influenced by periodic disturbances that create new niche opportunities in space or time, and the production of community biomass that speeds displacement of inferior by superior competitors. While the joint response of diversity to disturbance and productivity has gained support from theoretical and small-scale experimental studies, evidence that corresponding patterns of biodiversity occur broadly across natural systems is scarce. Using a data set that employed standardized methods to sample 85 streams throughout the mid-Atlantic United States of America, we show that biogeographical patterns of primary producer diversity in stream ecosystems are consistent with the predictions of a multivariate model that incorporates disturbance frequency and community biomass production as independent variables. Periphyton species richness is a concave-down function of disturbance frequency (mean no. floods year(-1)) and of biomass production (mu g of biomass accrual cm(-2) day(-1)), and an increasing function of their interaction. Changes in richness across the disturbance x productivity response surface can be related to several predicted life-history traits of the dominant species. Our findings complement prior studies by showing that multivariate models which consider interactive effects of community production and ecosystem disturbance are, in fact, candidate explanations of much broader patterns of richness in natural systems. Because multivariate models predict synergistic effects of ecological variables on species diversity, human activities - which are simultaneously altering both the disturbance regime and productivity of streams - could be influencing biodiversity more than previously anticipated.

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