The acidification and ongoing pH recovery of lakes in Killarney Provincial Park, Canada, provides a unique opportunity to increase our understanding of the role of dispersal as communities respond to environmental change. Time lags in community recovery following pH increases in acidified lakes have typically been attributed to local factors; however, no studies have been conducted to determine if colonist availability could also play a role. Moreover, the rates and mechanisms of dispersal to recovering lakes are poorly understood. In this study, we sought to determine if dispersal limitation could impede the recovery of zooplankton communities affected by a regional stressor. To achieve this objective, we used a combination of empirical data collection along with spatial modeling and variation partitioning techniques. Empirical data were collected by measuring dispersal to four recovering lakes in Killarney Park. Dispersal traps were placed next to lakes to measure immigration overland, drift nets were used to measure immigration via streams, and in-situ emergence traps were used to quantify immigration from historically deposited resting eggs. Documented dispersal levels were then compared with the theoretical critical density required for reproduction (NC) to determine if adequate numbers were dispersing to establish populations of acid-sensitive species in recovering lakes. Spatial modeling and variation partitioning was conducted using community and physical/chemical data for 45 park lakes that were collected in 1972-73, 1990, and 2005.
Field data demonstrated that a high abundance and diversity of zooplankton were dispersing to recovering lakes through streams and the egg bank, but few individuals were collected dispersing overland. Despite the high abundance and diversity of dispersing zooplankton, only six species absent from the communities of our study lakes were identified from our traps, and two of these species did not disperse in high enough numbers to surpass NC. Local environmental variables explained the largest proportion of the variation in zooplankton communities (18-37%); however, spatial variables were also important (7-18%). The significant spatial patterns we found in the park's zooplankton communities combined with the low overland dispersal levels we documented suggest that dispersal limitation may be a more important impediment to recovery than was previously thought.