The number of community types occurring within landscapes is an important, but often unprotected, component of biological diversity. Generally applicable protocols for characterizing community diversity need to be developed to facilitate conservation. We used several multivariate techniques to analyze geographic variation in the composition of fish communities in Virginia streams. We examined relationships between community composition and six landscape variables: drainage basin, physiography, stream order, elevation, channel slope, and map coordinates. We compared patterns at two scales (statewide and subdrainage-specific) to assess sensitivity of community classification to spatial scale. We also compared patterns based on characterizing communities by species composition vs. ecological composition. All landscape variables explained significant proportions of the variance in community composition. Statewide, they explained 32% of the variance in species composition and 48% of the variance in ecological composition. Typical communities in each drainage or physiography were statistically distinctive. Communities in different combinations of drainage, physiography, and stream size were even more distinctive, but composition was strongly spatially autocorrelated. Ecological similarity and species similarity of community pairs were strongly related, but replacement by ecologically similar species was common among drainage-physiography combinations. Landscape variables explained significant proportions of variance in community composition within selected subdrainages, but proportions were less than at the statewide scale, and the explanatory power of individual variables varied considerably among subdrainages. Community variation within subdrainages appeared to be much more closely related to environmental variation than to replacement among ecologically similar species. Our results suggest that taxonomic and ecological characterizations of community composition are complementary; both are useful in a conservation context. Landscape features such as drainage, physiography, and water body size generally may provide a basis for assessing aquatic community diversity, especially in regions where the biota is poorly known. Systematic conservation of community types would be a major advance relative to most current conservation programs, which typically focus narrowly on populations of imperiled species. More effective conservation of aquatic biodiversity will require new approaches that recognize the value of both species and assemblages, and that emphasize protection of key landscape-scale processes.
Additional publication details
Characterizing fish community diversity across Virginia landscapes: Prerequisite for conservation