The structure of tardigrade communities at fine spatial scales in an Andean Polylepis forest
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Little is known about distribution patterns of micrometazoan organisms at different spatial scales and the mechanisms driving these patterns across different environments. Here we explore the fine-scale structure of tardigrades in a high-elevation Polylepis forest in northern Ecuador. To investigate spatial patterns of tardigrade abundance, we collected samples from different bryophyte taxa (hosts) on the woodland floor. We identified some tardigrades to species, but most taxa were considered at the level of morphological operational taxonomic units. Tardigrade assemblages differed in composition between host taxa, with some tardigrade taxa associated more with certain hosts, which might relate to host architecture or chemistry. Tardigrade occupancy, richness and abundance varied considerably between samples, and we estimate that more than 50 samples are required to estimate tardigrade taxon richness in this forest habitat. Physical distance between samples was not related to similarity of composition, and it seems that fine-scale differences in environmental conditions (including the distribution of host bryophytes) is much more important in determining tardigrade composition. We conclude that standardised, comprehensive sampling of terrestrial tardigrades at fine scales is necessary before making broader comparisons at coarser geographical scales. Such sampling should account for the diversity of potential hosts, with sufficient replication to capture tardigrade diversity.
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