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Beyond a single patch: local and regional processes explain diversity patterns in a seagrass epifaunal metacommunity

Keila A. Stark*, Patrick L. Thompson, Jennifer Yakimishyn, Lynn Lee, Emily M. Adamczyk, Margot Hessing-Lewis, Mary I. O’Connor

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Ecological communities are jointly structured by dispersal, density-independent responses to environmental conditions and density-dependent biotic interactions. Metacommunity ecology provides a framework for understanding how these processes combine to determine community seagrass meadows along the British Columbia coast, we tested the hypothesis that eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) epifaunal invertebrate assemblages are influenced by local environmental conditions, but that high dispersal rates at larger spatial scales dampen effects of environmental differences. We used hierarchical joint species distribution modelling to understand the contribution of environmental conditions, spatial distance between meadows, and species co-occurrences to epifaunal invertebrate abundance and distribution across the region. We found that patterns of taxonomic compositional similarity among meadows were inconsistent with dispersal limitation, and meadows in the same region were often no more similar to each other than meadows over 1000 km away. Abiotic environmental conditions (temperature, dissolved oxygen) explained a small fraction of variation in taxonomic abundances patterns across the region. We found novel co-occurrence patterns among taxa that could not be explained by shared responses to environmental gradients, suggesting the possibility that interspecific interactions influence seagrass invertebrate abundance and distribution. Our results suggest that biodiversity and ecosystem functions provided by seagrass meadows reflect ecological processes occurring both within meadows and across seascapes, and that management of eelgrass habitat for biodiversity may be most effective when both local and regional processes are considered.