Ant communities along an elevational transect, the Udzungwa Mountains in Tanzania.
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Understanding biodiversity patterns and the processes that structure them along environmental gradients has been a topic of major ecological interest. Although relatively well-known, alpha diversity is still poorly understood. It is therefore crucial to investigate alpha diversity patterns as they reveal how diversified species are within a site and identifies processes underlying the co-occurrence of species at a local scale. The patterns and processes related to beta diversity, however, have lagged even more behind. Beta diversity describes the variation in species composition between sites. It reveals whether species turnover or richness differences cause variation in community composition between sites. Together, alpha and beta diversity may provide baseline information for conservation planning, especially in African Tropics. African tropical rainforests, although very diverse, are some of the most threatened and understudied ecosystems of the world. Similarly, although the primary aim in ecology has been to document biodiversity patterns and the processes that structure them, those of invertebrates have lagged behind. As a result, very little is known about African tropical invertebrate patterns and the mechanisms that drive them. The current study, therefore aims (1) describe ant diversity patterns and community assemblages along the Udzungwa mountains, (2) to describe the extent of compositional differences between sites (beta diversity) and (3) to reveal the assembly mechanisms that drive these differences along an altitudinal gradient, Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania. A standardized pitfall survey was conducted across five elevational transects, each at a distance of 0.1, 1, 20 and 174 km from the first one. Three target elevations which correspond to the three forest types of this mountain (lowland (300-800 m.a.s.l), sub-montane (800-1400), montane (1400-1500)) were selected. A total of 31 776 ant specimens were collected. They belong to five subfamilies, 34 genera and 101 species. Species richness declined with increasing elevation. Three species assemblages corresponding to the three forest types were observed across the mountains. The lowland assemblage was very distinct, while the sub-montane and montane assemblages were closely related. Results show that distance (km) and elevational distance (m.a.s.l) influence variation in community composition (beta diversity). Beta diversity increases with geographic and elevational distance, although more noticeable with elevation. The standardised effect sizes (SES) models suggest that species turnover increases with distance and elevation, while richness differences decrease with distance and elevation. Species turnover plays a significant role in structuring ant communities with increasing elevation while neither species turnover nor richness differences play a significant role in structuring ant communities with increasing geographical distance. The overall findings of this study, therefore, suggest that ants of the Udzungwa mountains are niche conservative, beta diversity is affected by distance and elevation and that species replacement structures ant communities with increasing elevation, while biotic interactions structure ant communities with increasing distance. Therefore, temperature is very important in structuring ant communities along the Udzungwa mountains and complementarity between sites is maximized by choosing sites that are at different elevations.