An ecological metacommunity is a set of interacting communities which are linked by the dispersal of multiple, potentially interacting species. The term is derived from the field of community ecology, which is primarily concerned with patterns of species distribution, abundance and interactions.
There are four theoretical frameworks, or unifying themes, that each detail specific mechanistic processes useful for predicting empirical community patterns. These are the patch dynamics, species sorting, source–sink dynamics (or mass effect) and neutral model frameworks. Patch dynamics models describe species composition among multiple, identical patches, such as islands, and emphasizes colonization-competitive ability trade-offs. Species sorting models describe variation in abundance and composition within the metacommunity due to individual species responses to environmental heterogeneity, such that certain local conditions may favor certain species and not others. This model represents the classical theories of the niche-centric era of G. Evelyn Hutchinson and Robert MacArthur. Source-sink models describe a framework in which dispersal and environmental heterogeneity interact to determine local and regional abundance and composition. This framework is derived from the metapopulation ecology term describing source–sink dynamics at the population level. Finally, the neutral perspective describes a framework where species are essentially equivalent in their competitive and dispersal abilities, and local and regional composition and abundance is determined primarily by stochastic demographic processes and dispersal limitation. The neutral perspective was recently popularized by Stephen Hubbell following his groundbreaking work on the unified neutral theory of biodiversity.
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- Leibold, M.A., M. Holyoak, N. Moquet and others (2004). The metacommunity concept: a framework for multi-scale community ecology. Ecology Letters, 7: 601-613.