Why do microbes exhibit weak spatial patterns?
Analysis of patterns in the distribution of taxa can provide important insights into ecological and evolutionary processes. Microbial biogeographic patterns almost always appear to be weaker than those reported for plant and animal taxa. It is as yet unclear why this is the case. Some argue that microbial diversity scales differently over space because microbial taxa are fundamentally different in their abundance, longevity and dispersal abilities. Others have argued that differences in scaling are an artifact of how we assess microbial biogeography, driven, for example, by differences in taxonomic resolution, spatial scale, sampling effort or community activity/dormancy. We tested these alternative explanations by comparing bacterial biogeographic patterns in soil to those of trees found in a forest in Gabon. Altering taxonomic resolution, excluding inactive individuals, or adjusting for differences in spatial scale were insufficient to change the rate of microbial taxonomic turnover. In contrast, we account for the differences in spatial turnover between these groups by equalizing sampling extent. Our results suggest that spatial scaling differences between microbial and plant diversity are likely not due to fundamental differences in biology, and that sampling extent should be taken into account when comparing the biogeographic patterns of microorganisms and larger organisms.