Why are there more species in the tropics than in the temperate regions of the globe? Many of the world's species live in the tropics (perhaps more than half), but the reason has been debated for more than 100 years.
Many researchers have hypothesized that climatic factors somehow cause species to originate more quickly in tropical regions. In a paper appearing in the November issue of The American Naturalist, John Wiens and a group of researchers from Stony Brook University have shown that, contrary to expectations, species seem to evolve at similar rates in tropical and temperate regions. What causes the difference in species numbers between tropical and temperate regions is not something special about the tropics that leads to more rapid speciation, but rather that the temperate areas were colonized more recently, leaving less time for species to originate and accumulate in these regions.
The researchers studied the causes of high tropical species richness in treefrogs in the Americas. Combining analyses of evolutionary trees based on DNA sequences with GIS-based methods for analyzing the effects of climate on species distributions, the researchers found no relationship between how quickly species originate within a group and whether that group is tropical or temperate.
However, they did find a strong relationship between when each region was colonized and the number of species there today. Thus, the high species richness of tropical regions seems to be explained by the ancient origin of many groups in the tropics, more recent colonization of temperate regions, and by the inability of most tropical species to tolerate the variable temperatures of temperate areas.
According to John Wiens, the study has important conservation implications: "If the pattern we see in treefrogs holds true for most other groups, then the tropics may have more ancient lineages and more genetic diversity per species than temperate regions. So there may be far more loss of diversity going on as we lose tropical rainforests than would be suggested by the number of species alone."
Founded in 1867, The American Naturalist is one of the world's most renowned, peer-reviewed publications in ecology, evolution, and population and integrative biology research. AN emphasizes sophisticated methodologies and innovative theoretical syntheses all in an effort to advance the knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles.
John J. Wiens, Catherine H. Graham, Daniel S. Moen, Sarah A. Smith, and Tod W. Reeder, "Evolutionary and ecological causes of the latitudinal diversity gradient in hylid frogs: treefrog trees unearth the roots of high tropical diversity." The American Naturalist: November 2006.