Abiotic conditions have long been considered essential in structuring fresh-water macroinvertebrate communities. Ecological drift, dispersal and biotic interactions also structure communities, and although these mechanisms are more difficult to detect, they may be of equal importance in natural communities. Here, we hypothesized that in 10 naturally replicated headwater streams in eastern Switzerland, locally dominant amphipod species would be associated with differences in environmental conditions. We conducted repeated surveys of amphipods and used a hierarchical joint species distribution model to assess the influence of different drivers on species co-occurrences. The species had unique environmental requirements, but a distinct spatial structure in their distributions was unrelated to habitat. Species co-occurred much less frequently than predicted by the model, which was surprising because laboratory and field evidence suggests they are capable of coexisting in equal densities. We suggest that niche preemption may limit their distribution and that a blocking effect related to the specific linear configuration of streams determines which species colonizes and dominates a given stream catchment, thus suggesting a new solution a long-standing conundrum in freshwater ecology.