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Aquatic islands in the sky: 100 years of research on water-filled tree holes

Cite this dataset

Petermann, Jana S.; Gossner, Martin M. (2023). Aquatic islands in the sky: 100 years of research on water-filled tree holes [Dataset]. Dryad.


Water-filled tree holes are unique ecosystems that may occur high up in tree crowns like aquatic islands in the sky. Insect larvae, mesofauna and other organisms colonize the waterbodies and feed on the accumulating detritus. Water-filled tree holes are not only important habitats for these species but have been used as model systems in ecology. Here we review more than 100 years of research on tree-hole inhabiting organisms and show that most studies focus on selected or even single species (most of which are mosquitoes) whereas only few studies examine groups other than insects, especially in the tropics. Using a vote counting of results and a meta-analysis of community studies, we show that the effects of tree-hole size and resources on abundance and richness were investigated most frequently. Both were found to have a positive effect, but effect sizes were modulated by site-specific environmental variables such as temperature or precipitation. We also show that parameters such as the height of the tree holes above ground, tree-hole density, predation and detritus type can be important drivers of organism abundance or richness but are less often tested. We identify several important research gaps and potential avenues for future research. Specifically, future studies should investigate the structure, functions and temporal dynamics of tree-hole food webs and their cross-system interactions, for example with terrestrial predators that act as a connection to their terrestrial surroundings in meta-ecosystems. Global observational or experimental tree-hole studies could contribute pivotal information on spatial variation of community structure and environmental drivers of community assembly. With a better understanding of these unique aquatic habitats in terrestrial ecosystems, natural and artificial tree holes can not only serve as model systems for addressing fundamental ecological questions but also as indicator systems of the impacts of environmental change on ecosystems.


For the meta-analyses, we compiled raw data from unpublished or published community studies where possible. If data was available as a figure only we used the web-based tool WebPlotDigitizer ( to extract the data points. We also used Pearson’s correlation coefficients (r) from published studies reporting the effects of tree-hole size or detritus amount on the abundance and richness of organisms. Furthermore, t, F and χ2 values were converted to correlation coefficients in some instances. Correlation coefficients between tree-hole size or detritus amount, respectively, and organism abundance or richness, respectively, were then used as effect sizes in four meta-analyses after transformation to Fisher’s z. We ran additional analyses using partial correlation coefficients for those studies for which we had raw data on both detritus amount and size to control for the effects of size on detritus amount. Data on separate groups of organisms or response variables from one study were used as separate data points. Annual mean temperature and annual precipitation were used as reported by the studies. If this information was not available from the publication, temperature and precipitation data were extracted from the WorldClim database (version 1.4, For those studies that used several sites, averages of the climate data between the sites were used. If several sites per study were used, these were never more than 300km apart and climates did not differ much.


FWF Austrian Science Fund, Award: P 32453