1. Lake phytoplankton community structure may be influenced by both internal factors (predation, competition, resource constraints) and external ones, such as dispersal of materials and cells between connected habitats. However, little is known about the importance of cell dispersal for phytoplankton community structure in lakes.
2. We investigated the abundance and dispersal of phytoplankton cells between connected rivers and lakes, and analysed whether similarities in phytoplankton community composition between rivers and lakes were primarily related to cell import rates or to characteristics of the local habitat. We focused on lakes along a gradient of theoretical water retention times (TWRT). Two data sets from Swedish lakes were used; a seasonal study of two connected boreal forest lakes, differing in TWRT, and a multi-lake study of 13 lakes with a continuous range of TWRTs.
3. Phytoplankton cells were transported and dispersed in all investigated rivers. In the seasonal study, cell import rates and similarities in phytoplankton community composition between the lake and its inlet(s) were much higher in the lake with a shorter TWRT. Phytoplankton community structure in different habitats was associated with total organic carbon (TOC). This indicates that local habitat characteristics may be important in determining lake phytoplankton community composition, even in the presence of substantial cell import.
4. The multi-lake study also showed a negative relationship between TWRT and similarities in phytoplankton community composition between inlets and lakes. Moreover, similarity in community structure was related to both cell import rates from inlet to lake and differences in habitat characteristics between inlet and lake. However, the variable most strongly correlated with community structure was TOC, indicating that species sorting rather than a mass effect was the most important mechanism underlying the correlation between community structure and retention time.
5. Overall, our data suggest that local habitat characteristics may play a key role in determining community similarity in this set of lakes covering a large range of habitat connectedness. Due to the strong co-variations between cell dispersal and TOC, it was hard to unequivocally disentangle the different mechanisms; hence, there is a need for further studies of the role of dispersal for phytoplankton community structures.
2008. Vol. 53, 2520–2529- p.