Water-energy dynamics, climate, and prediction of woody plant species richness: an interim general model



Predictable geographic patterns in the distribution of species richness, especially the latitudinal gradient, are intriguing because they suggest that if we knew what the controlling factors were we could predict species richness where empirical data is lacking (e.g. tropics). Based on analyses of the macro-scale distribution of woody plant species richness in Southern Africa, one controlling factor appears to be climate-based water-energy dynamics. Using the regression models of climate's relationship to species richness in Southern Africa, I was able to describe an Interim General Model (IGM) and to predict first-order macro-scale geographic variations in woody plant species richness for the continent of Africa, as well as elsewhere in the world—exemplified using South America, the United States and China.

In all cases, the geographic pattern of variation in species richness is in accord with geographic variations in vegetation (visual comparison with vegetation maps) and net primary productivity. What validation was possible (Africa and U.S.A.) suggests that the IGM provides ‘reasonable’ estimates for actual woody plant species richness where species richness is in relative equilibrium with climate. Areas of over- or under-prediction support the contention of earlier workers that edaphic, topographic, historical, and dispersal factors need to be considered in a more complete explanation for spatio-temporal variations in species richness.

In addition to providing a means for systematically estimating woody plant species richness where present-day empirical data is lacking, the Interim General Model may prove useful for modelling the effects of climate change (past/future) on species richness (and, by association, the vegetation).