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Beta diversity of rock-restricted cichlid fishes in Lake Malawi: importance of environmental and spatial factors

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The rock-restricted cichlid fish assemblages of Lake Malawi exhibit high spatial diversity in their species composition and relative abundance. However the extent to which this is due to the effects of local environmental differences, dispersal limitation of constituent taxa, and the assignment of allopatric populations to species is uncertain. We examined the factors associated with diversity within an assemblage from the north-western shores, encompassing a spatial scale of 170 km. For both the whole assemblage, and all constituent species-complexes, spatial variance in community structure was significantly dependent upon both geographic distances between locations and local habitat variables. Pronounced effects of distance indicate limited dispersal, but our results also show that that the spatial variance explained by geographic distance alone was strongly linked to proportion of allopatric populations within a species-complex with species status. Thus, the taxonomic status of allopatric populations underlies, at least partially, the biogeographical structure of this assemblage. Substrate composition and habitat depth were also significant determinants of community structure, although spatial variance attributed to these variables was less than that associated with distance alone. Substantial unexplained variance may be a consequence of the effects of unmeasured habitat variables, high ecological similarity between co-occurring species, stochastic influences on population abundance, and the effects of local adaptation. Despite low spatial variance explained by the assessed environmental variables, significant environmental influence on cichlid assemblage structure across a wide spatial scale indicates that even slight future environmental changes may have the capacity to significantly alter species composition.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2004

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