In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Metacommunity Dynamics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Advances
  • Mechanisms and Processes
  • Applications and Future Directions

Ecology Metacommunity Dynamics
Florian Altermatt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0021


Understanding the distribution of species, their abundance, and their interactions with other species is the central theme of ecology. A large part of community ecology dealing with these aspects has focused on the scale of individual communities. The study of how spatial dynamics can provide an explanation for the origin and maintenance of biodiversity is a relatively young domain, founded in the research on island biogeography. The rapid loss and fragmentation of habitats due to human activities has further increased the interest in spatial ecology and has fostered the study of metacommunity dynamics. A metacommunity is defined as a set of local communities that are linked by dispersal. For single species, the metapopulation concept addresses how dispersal connecting a set of local populations can compensate for local extinction and enable the regional persistence of a species. While explicitly addressing different spatial scales, the metapopulation concept ignores the possibility that species may affect each other’s birth and death rates. Metacommunity ecology explicitly addresses interactions among species at different spatial scales and addresses how species interactions can influence or be influenced by spatial dynamics. The concept of metacommunities thereby combines two common features of many biological systems: first, that species are interacting in complex ways and, second, that spatial heterogeneity and fragmentation lead to patches of suitable habitat in a matrix of nonhabitat. Importantly, species interactions can affect spatial processes and vice versa. This reciprocal influence can be a nontrivial source of variation affecting community composition. The current interest in the field of metacommunity ecology is mostly in understanding which types of interactions are occurring at different spatial scales and understanding the relative importance of species interactions and dispersal in shaping natural communities.

General Overviews

The field of metacommunity ecology has its roots in the field of metapopulation ecology (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on Metapopulations and Spatial Population Processes). The original metapopulation concept focused on how a single species can persist in a set of spatially delimited, temporary populations that are linked by dispersal. Gilpin and Hanski 1991 gives an early overview on the metapopulation concept, and the examples therein are still useful today. Metapopulation ecology prospered in the 1980s and 1990s. Even then, metapopulations with multiple species were being studied. In 1992 Wilson published an influential theoretical paper that is often seen as one of the foundational works on metacommunities (see Wilson 1992). He highlighted the idea that complex interactions themselves can provide a source of endogenous variation that affects diversity in space. Thereafter, metacommunity dynamics were increasingly addressed and were explicitly discussed in Hanski and Gilpin 1997. Several chapters of this important edited book address two-species or multispecies metapopulations, and it uses the term metacommunity as an equivalent for multispecies metapopulation. However, these metapopulations were considered mostly to be simple extensions of single-species metapopulations, and the importance of species interactions on spatial dynamics themselves was not yet fully addressed. Leibold, et al. 2004 is a seminal review on metacommunity dynamics that specifically discusses how species interactions may influence or be influenced by the spatial dynamics of individual metapopulations. At that time, metacommunity dynamics ideas were also prominently discussed in a comprehensive book on metapopulations, Hanski and Gaggiotti 2004. Shortly thereafter, the ideas and concepts summarized in Leibold, et al. 2004 were extensively addressed in an edited book on metacommunities, Holyoak, et al. 2005, which was the first and continues to be the most influential book on the subject. This book was written by all the authors who contributed to the Leibold, et al. 2004 volume, as well as several others, making it a rounded overview. It promotes the metacommunity concept and summarizes many model systems. A recent, up-to-date integration of the metacommunity concept into an ecological textbook is Leibold 2009.

  • Gilpin, Michael E., and Ilkka A. Hanski. 1991. Metapopulation dynamics: Empirical and theoretical investigations. London: Academic Press.

    A milestone volume in the field of spatial ecology, summarizing what was then the state of the art in metapopulation ecology. It gives one of the first uses of the term metacommunity, defining it as a set of communities (a set of interacting species) occurring in discrete patches, linked by dispersal. Retrospectively, it also illustrates the foundation of metacommunity ecology in metapopulation theory.

  • Hanski, Ilkka, and Oscar E. Gaggiotti. 2004. Ecology, genetics and evolution of metapopulations. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    One of the first edited books on metapopulation dynamics, which includes chapters that explicitly address metacommunities. The four basic perspectives of metacommunities are briefly discussed, and extensive references on empirical and theoretical studies on metapopulations are given. Importantly, it is pointed out that metacommunities are more than simple extensions of one-species metapopulations.

  • Hanski, Ilkka, and Michael E. Gilpin. 1997. Metapopulation biology: Ecology, genetics, and evolution. London: Academic Press.

    While focusing on single-species metapopulations, this edited book gives an early discussion of metacommunity dynamics, both from an empirical and theoretical perspective. The term multispecies metapopulation is used synonymously with metacommunity. Single-species Levins metapopulation models are generalized to multiple species, and competition, predation, and mutualism between the species are considered. However, metacommunity dynamics are not yet described to their full extent.

  • Holyoak, Marcel, Mathew A. Leibold, and Robert D. Holt. 2005. Metacommunities: Spatial dynamics and ecological communities. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This edited book is the first that is totally devoted to the subject of metacommunity dynamics. By bringing together all aspects of metacommunities, it is a landmark in the field of spatial ecology, and it strongly promoted the study of metacommunity dynamics. The monograph gives an extensive conceptual overview and discusses several case examples.

  • Leibold, M. A. 2009. Spatial and metacommunity dynamics in biodiversity. In The Princeton guide to ecology. Edited by Simon A. Levin, 312–319. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A clear and concise textbook chapter on metacommunity dynamics that is an up-to-date overview on their core perspectives and shows how the metacommunity concept can be applied to food webs and ecosystems. An ideal introduction to the subject for students. The list of further readings offers important texts and allows an in-depth start on the metacommunity concept.

  • Leibold, M. A., M. Holyoak, N. Mouquet, et al. 2004. The metacommunity concept: A framework for multi-scale community ecology. Ecology Letters 7.7: 601–613.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2004.00608.x

    This review paper is a concise and clear overview on the field of metacommunity dynamics. It is a synthesis of Holyoak, et al. 2005, an edited book, and was published shortly before the book, and to which all the book’s coauthors also contributed. The review focuses on conceptual aspects and defines the four metacommunity perspectives. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Wilson, David Sloan. 1992. Complex interactions in metacommunities, with implications for biodiversity and higher levels of selection. Ecology 73.6: 1984–2000.

    DOI: 10.2307/1941449

    A classic foundational work that offers one of the first models that explicitly addressed how complex interactions among species in a spatially fragmented landscape affect local and global dynamics. The main finding is that the number of species coexisting in a metacommunity exceeds the richness of any single patch. Furthermore, it finds that complex interactions in fragmented landscapes provide a new source of variation. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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