Although competing species are expected to exhibit compensatory dynamics (negative temporal covariation), empirical work has demonstrated that competitive communities often exhibit synchronous dynamics (positive temporal covariation). This has led to the suggestion that environmental forcing dominates species dynamics; however, synchronous and compensatory dynamics may appear at different length scales and/or at different times, making it challenging to identify their relative importance. We compiled 58 long-term datasets of zooplankton abundance in north-temperate and subtropical lakes and used wavelet analysis to quantify general patterns in the times and scales at which synchronous/compensatory dynamics dominated zooplankton communities in different regions and across the entire dataset. Synchronous dynamics were far more prevalent at all scales and times and were ubiquitous at the annual scale. Although we found compensatory dynamics in approximately 14% of all combinations of time period/scale/ lake, there were no consistent scales or time periods during which compensatory dynamics were apparent across different regions. Our results suggest that the processes driving compensatory dynamics may be local in their extent, while those generating synchronous dynamics operate at much larger scales. This highlights an important gap in our understanding of the interaction between environmental and biotic forces that structure communities. © 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.