Effective strategies to mitigate biodiversity loss require investigators to accurately link local observations to regional trends because conservation policy is typically implemented at the regional scale. In recognition of this challenge, a major focus in ecology over the past two decades has been the development and testing of metacommunity theory as a framework to link local community assembly dynamics to regional phenomena in heterogeneous and often patchy landscapes. A major goal in the application of the metacommunity framework is to use advances in our understanding of dispersal in such landscapes to better understand how local community assembly mechanisms explain regional biodiversity patterns, and how controls over biodiversity differ among regions. Long-term ecological research programs offer unique resources to address these research questions. Here we report on how the metacommunity concept is being applied to interpret long-term biodiversity data across diverse ecosystems. This review is based on a working group initiated at the 2015 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) All Scientists Meeting in which investigators self-identified as having applied the metacommunity framework to interpret biodiversity data at their site, or as representing a site where the metacommunity framework could potentially be applied.
A search for metacommunity publications at the LTER website returns only 9 articles, yet, a site-by-site search yields hundreds of metacommunity papers. Further, our survey showed that over 50 researchers from across the LTER network are interested in applying metacommunity theory. A major theme among researchers is the use of available long-term data to understand how measures of local diversity (e.g., alpha diversity) can predict regional ecosystem (gamma scale) stability. Methods such as variation partitioning, diversity partitioning, and elements of metacommunity structure have been used by LTER researchers to assess local and regional metacommunity characteristics across vastly different ecosystems, such as dry valleys in Antarctica, coastal ecosystems, tropical landscapes, headwater streams, and urban and exurban ecosystems. Additionally, marine and coastal LTER sites offer great potential for the application of the metacommunity framework in ecosystems where investigators are working to understand how local community composition affects regional stability. Lastly, we identify lessons learned from existing long-term data sets that can inform the implementation of new and/or future long-term data collection efforts, such as the National Ecological Observatory Network. This communication will address crucial gaps in currently available data sets that need to be filled to adequately test metacommunity theory.