A team of scientists has completed a study that explains why the tropics are so much richer in biodiversity than higher latitudes. And they say that their work highlights the importance of preserving those species against extinction.
"If you came from outer space and you started randomly observing life on Earth, at least before people were here, the first thing you'd see was this incredible profusion of life in the tropics," said the report's lead author, David Jablonski, the William Kenan Jr. Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. "This is the single most dramatic biodiversity pattern on this planet."
Jablonski and his co-authors, Kaustuv Roy, of the University of California, San Diego, and James Valentine, of the University of California, Berkeley, present their new findings on the origins of this global diversity trend in the Oct. 6 issue of the journal Science.
Why the tropics are so much richer in species and evolutionary lineages than elsewhere on Earth has loomed as one of the largest questions facing biologists for more than a century. Biologists have proposed virtually every possible combination of origination, extinction and immigration to explain the pattern at one time or another. But for the past 30 years, they have tended to view the tropics either as a cradle of diversity, where new species originate, or as a museum of diversity, where old species persist. And no resolution has been in sight.
The fossil data of the past 11 million years has broken this logjam. It shows that it's not an either/or proposition. The new study is the first to amass enough data to dissect the roles of extinction, origination and immigration directly. "I think we've killed the idea that the tropics is either a cradle or a museum of biodiversity. It's both," said Valentine, professor emeritus of integrative biology at UC Berkeley.