Tree leaf litter composition drives temporal variation in aquatic beetle colonization and assemblage structure in lentic systems
Tree leaf litter inputs to freshwater systems are a major resource and primary drivers of ecosystem processes and structure. Spatial variation in tree species distributions and forest composition control litter inputs across landscapes, but inputs to individual lentic habitat patches are determined by adjacent plant communities. In small, ephemeral, fishless ponds, resource quality and abundance can be the most important factor affecting habitat selection preferences of colonizing animals. We used a landscape of experimental mesocosms to assess how natural populations of aquatic beetles respond over time to variation in tree leaf litter composition (pine or hardwood). Patches with faster-decomposing hardwood leaf litter were initially colonized at higher rates than slower-decomposing pine pools by most species of Hydrophilidae, but this pattern reversed later in the experiment with higher colonization of pine pools by hydrophilids. Colonization did not differ between pine and hardwood for dytiscids and the small hydrophilid Paracymus, but there were distinct beetle assemblages between pine and hardwood patches both early and late in the experiment. Our data support the importance of patch quality and habitat selection as determinants of species abundances, richness, and community structure in freshwater aquatic systems, not only when new habitat patches are formed and initial conditions set, but as patches change due to interactions of processes such as decomposition with time.