Although scientists have known since the middle of the 19th century that the tropics are teeming with species while the poles harbor relatively few, the origin of the most dramatic and pervasive biodiversity on Earth has never been clear.
New research sheds light on how that pattern came about. Furthermore, it confirms that the tropics have been and continue to be the Earth's engine of biodiversity.
By examining marine bivalves (two-shelled mollusks including scallops, cockles and oysters), a model system for large-scale ecological and evolutionary analysis, the study shows that most evolutionary lineages started in the tropics and expanded outward.
"This 'out of the tropics' dynamic is the major process that shapes the latitudinal pattern of biodiversity that we see today on land and sea," said lead author David Jablonski, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. His team focuses on marine bivalves because they combine a wealth of important biological patterns with a large but manageable number of living species (about 8,000) and a rich fossil record.
The new research will be published this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presents evidence that the "out of the tropics" process is driven mainly by bridge species, a new term referring to evolutionary lineages that straddle the boundary between the tropics and cooler neighboring regions.
"We thought the 'out of the tropics' process would be driven by the formation of new species at the edge of the tropics, but that doesn't seem to be true," Jablonski said. "Whether bridge species really are the conduit, 'out of the tropics' for all those lineages still needs to be confirmed. We'll tackle that next, by examining molecular data on species within these lineages, inside and outside the tropics, to see how they're related."
As with the PNAS study, this follow-up research would require examining data on both fossils and living organisms. "Alas, it's still rare for paleontologists to integrate the fossil record with data on present-day organisms, but for large-scale biodiversity studies like this, it's a very powerful approach, often an essential one," Jablonski said. "Biodiversity is a product of origination, extinction and immigration, and when the fossil record is adequate, as it is with bivalves, it provides the most robust window into the dynamics that produced present-day patterns."