© 2015, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg. Purpose: The variation in soil microbial community patterns is primarily influenced by ecological processes associated with spatial distance and environmental heterogeneities. However, the relative importance of these processes in determining the patterns of soil microbial biodiversity in different successional forests remains unclear. Materials and methods: Based on the species data from denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) analysis, we described the composition and beta diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) community, an important functional microbial group in regulating nitrogen cycle, in a middle-succeed stand (60 years of secondary succession) and an undisturbed native stand in a subtropical forest in southern China. The composition pattern was examined using a multi-response permutation procedure (MRPP), and the beta diversity was described using the Sørensen index. The relative influence of edaphic, vegetational, spatial, and topographical factors on AOA composition and beta diversity was assessed by variation partitioning and multiple regression on distance matrices (MRM), respectively. Results and discussion: We did not find any stand-specific patterns in AOA community composition in the two stands; however, the influential variables were different between the two stands; 7.3 and 4.5 % of the total variation in AOA community composition could be explained by edaphic (i.e., available potassium and total phosphorus) and spatial variables, respectively, in the middle-succeed stand, while 3.7 and 2.8 % of the variation were explained by spatial variable and available phosphorus, respectively, in the native stand. Soil total phosphorus influenced the beta diversity of AOA community most in the middle-succeed stand, while genetic distance of tree species was found to be the most important factor in driving the beta diversity pattern in the native stand. Conclusions: Soil nutrients influenced the beta diversity of AOA community in the middle-succeed stand more than that in the native stand, while vegetation is more important in the native stand. The substantial unexplained variations were possibly due to the effects of other unmeasured variables. Nevertheless, dispersal process is more important in controlling AOA community composition in the native stand, while processes associated with environmental heterogeneities are more important in the middle-succeed stand in this subtropical forest.