Aim To document the geographical structure of the historical signal in the continental species richness gradient of birds and evaluate the influences of contemporary and historical climatic conditions on the generation and maintenance of the richness pattern.
Methods We used range maps of breeding birds to generate the spatial pattern of species richness at four grain sizes, and two molecular phylogenies to measure the level of evolutionary development of avifaunas at each grain size. We then used simple correlation and path analysis to generate a statistical model of species richness using environmental predictor variables and compared the spatial patterns of richness and mean evolutionary development to identify possible environmental links between richness and net diversification rates across the continent.
Results The contemporary richness pattern is well explained statistically by actual evapotranspiration (a measure of water–energy balance), operating both directly and indirectly through plant production, and this is robust to the spatial resolution of the analysis. Further, species richness and the mean level of evolutionary development of faunas show a strong spatial correspondence, such that dry areas support both fewer species and species from more highly derived families, whereas wet areas support more species of both basal and derived families. The evolutionary pattern conforms to a similar pattern known for plants and is probably explained by the increase in aridity in western and central Australia arising in the Miocene.
Main conclusion The contemporary bird richness gradient contains a historical signal and reflects the effects of both current levels of water availability as well as changes in rainfall patterns extending over evolutionary time. The historical signal persists even in the absence of obvious hard barriers to dispersal.