Metacommunity theory meets restoration: isolation may mediate how ecological communities respond to stream restoration

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Citation of Original Publication

Swan, C.M. and B.L. Brown. 2017. Metacommunity theory meets restoration: Isolation may mediate how ecological communities respond to stream restoration. Ecological Applications, 27(7):2209–2219.


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An often-cited benefit of river restoration is an increase in biodiversity or shift in composition to more desirable taxa. Yet, hard manipulations of habitat structure often fail to elicit a significant response in terms of biodiversity patterns. In contrast to conventional wis- dom, the dispersal of organisms may have as large an influence on biodiversity patterns as environmental conditions. This influence of dispersal may be particularly influential in river networks that are linear branching, or dendritic, and thus constrain most dispersal to the river corridor. As such, some locations in river networks, such as isolated headwaters, are expected to respond less to environmental factors and less by dispersal than more well-connected down- stream reaches. We applied this metacommunity framework to study how restoration drives biodiversity patterns in river networks. By comparing assemblage structure in headwater vs. more well-connected mainstem sites, we learned that headwater restoration efforts supported higher biodiversity and exhibited more stable ecological communities compared with adjacent, unrestored reaches. Such differences were not evident in mainstem reaches. Consistent with theory and mounting empirical evidence, we attribute this finding to a relatively higher influ- ence of dispersal-driven factors on assemblage structure in more well-connected, higher order reaches. An implication of this work is that, if biodiversity is to be a goal of restoration activity, such local manipulations of habitat should elicit a more profound response in small, isolated streams than in larger downstream reaches. These results offer another significant finding supporting the notion that restoration activity cannot proceed in isolation of larger-scale, catchment-level degradation.