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Keywords:

  • biogeography;
  • biome evolution;
  • botany;
  • biodiversity hotspots;
  • ecology;
  • phylogenetics;
  • systematics

This paper and this issue attempt to address how, when and why the phenomenal c. 100,000 species of seed plants in tropical America (the Neotropics) arose. It is increasingly clear that an approach focusing on individual major biomes rather than a single aggregate view is useful because of evidence for differing diversification histories among biomes. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that Neotropical-scale diversification patterns are structured more ecologically than geographically, with a key role for phylogenetic niche or biome conservatism. Lower geographical structure reflects the fact that long-distance dispersal, inferred from dated phylogenetic trees, has overcome many supposed dispersal barriers. Overall, high rates of species turnover as inferred from palaeontological and molecular data have been the hallmark of plant evolutionary dynamics in the Neotropics throughout the Cenozoic, with most extant species diversity post-dating the Mid- to Late Miocene, perhaps reflecting the conjunction of both global climatic changes and geological upheavals such as the Neogene uplift of the tropical Andes. Future studies of Neotropical diversification will be facilitated by taxonomically and genetically better sampled phylogenetic analyses, their integration with palaeontological, geological and ecological data, and improved methods to estimate biogeographic history and diversification dynamics at different spatial and temporal scales. Future biome-focused approaches would benefit greatly from better delimitation and mapping of Neotropical biomes. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London