Aims (i) To describe at the level of local communities latitudinal gradients in the species richness of different families of New World bats and to explore the generality of such gradients. (ii) To characterize the relative effects of changes in the richness of each family to the richness of entire communities. (iii) To determine differences in the rate and direction of latitudinal gradients in species richness within families. (iv) To evaluate how differences among families regarding latitudinal gradients in species richness influence the latitudinal gradient in species richness of entire communities.
Location Continental New World ranging from the northern continental United States (Iowa, 42° N) to eastern Paraguay (Canindeyú, 24° S).
Methods Data on the species composition of communities came from 32 intensively sampled sites. Analyses focused on species richness of five of nine New World bat families. Multivariate analysis of variance and discriminant function analysis determined and described differences among temperate, subtropical, and tropical climatic zones regarding the species richness of bat families. Simple linear regression described latitudinal gradients in species richness of families. Path analysis was used to describe: (i) the direct effect of latitude on species richness of communities, (ii) the indirect effects of latitude on the species richness of communities through its effect on the species richness of each family, (iii) the relative effects of latitude on the species richness of bat families, and (iv) the relative contribution of each family to variation in the species richness of communities.
Results Highly significant differences among climatic zones existed primarily because of a difference between the temperate zone and the tropical and subtropical zones combined. This difference was associated with the high number of vespertilionids in the temperate zone and the high number of phyllostomids in the tropical and subtropical zones. Latitudinal gradients in species richness were contingent on phylogeny. Although only three of the five families exhibited significant gradients, all families except for the Vespertilionidae exhibited indistinguishable increases in species richness with decreases in latitude. The Emballonuridae, Phyllostomidae and Vespertilionidae exhibited significant latitudinal gradients whereby the former two families exhibited the classical increase in species richness with decreasing latitude and the latter family exhibited the opposite pattern. Variation in species richness of all families contributed significantly to variation in the species richness of entire communities. Nonetheless, the Phyllostomidae made a significantly stronger contribution to changes in species richness of communities than did all other families. Much of the latitudinal gradient in species richness of communities could be accounted for by the effects of latitude on the species richness of constituent families.
Main conclusions Ecological and evolutionary differences among higher taxonomic units, particularly those differences involving life-history traits, predispose taxa to exhibit different patterns of diversity along environmental gradients. This may be particularly true along extensive gradients such as latitude. Nonetheless, species rich taxa, by virtue of their greater absolute rates of change, can dominate and therefore define the pattern of diversity at a higher taxonomic level and eclipse differences among less represented taxa in their response to environmental gradients. This is true not only with respect to how bats drive the latitudinal gradient in species richness for all mammals, but also for how the Phyllostomidae drives the latitudinal gradient for all bats in the New World. Better understanding of the mechanistic basis of latitudinal gradients of diversity may come from comparing and contrasting patterns across lower taxonomic levels of a higher taxon and by identifying key ecological and evolutionary traits that are associated with such differences.