• Birds;
  • climate change;
  • diversity gradient;
  • global warming;
  • Ice Age;
  • mammals;
  • recolonization;
  • spatial autocorrelation;
  • species richness


Aim   To investigate the relative contributions of current vs. historical factors in explaining broad-scale diversity gradients using a combination of contemporary factors and a quantitative estimate of the temporal accessibility of areas for recolonization created by glacial retreat following the most recent Ice Age.

Location   The part of the Nearctic region of North America that was covered by ice sheets during the glacial maximum 20 000 BP.

Methods   We used range maps to estimate the species richness of mammals and terrestrial birds in 48 400 km2 cells. Current conditions in each cell were quantified using seven climatic and topographical variables. Historical conditions were estimated using the number of years before present when an area became exposed as the ice sheets retreated during the post-Pleistocene climate warming. We attempted to tease apart contemporary and historical effects using multiple regression, partial regression and spatial autocorrelation analysis.

Results   A measure of current energy inputs, potential evapotranspiration, explained 76–82% of the variance in species richness, but time since deglaciation explained an additional 8–13% of the variance, primarily due to effects operating at large spatial scales. Because of spatial covariation between the historical climates influencing the melting of the ice sheet and current climates, it was not possible to partition their effects fully, but of the independent effects that could be identified, current climate explained two to seven times more variance in richness patterns than age.

Main Conclusions   Factors acting in the present appear to have the strongest influence on the diversity gradient, but an historical signal persisting at least 13 000 years is still detectable. This has implications for modelling changes in diversity patterns in response to future global warming.