Post-Eocene climate change, niche conservatism, and the latitudinal diversity gradient of New World birds


*Bradford A. Hawkins, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.


Aim  The aim of this study was to test a variant of the evolutionary time hypothesis for the bird latitudinal diversity gradient derived from the effects of niche conservatism in the face of global climate change over evolutionary time.

Location  The Western Hemisphere.

Methods  We used digitized range maps of breeding birds to estimate the species richness at two grain sizes, 756 and 12,100 km2. We then used molecular phylogenies resolved to family to quantify the root distance (RD) of each species as a measure of its level of evolutionary development. Birds were classified as ‘basal’ or ‘derived’ based on the RD of their family, and richness patterns were contrasted for the most basal and most derived 30% of species. We also generated temperature estimates for the Palaeogene across the Western Hemisphere to examine how spatial covariation between past and present climates might make it difficult to distinguish between ecological and evolutionary hypotheses for the current richness gradient.

Results  The warm, wet tropics support many species from basal bird clades, whereas the northern temperate zone and cool or dry tropics are dominated by species from more recent, evolutionarily derived clades. Furthermore, crucial to evaluating how niche conservatism among birds may drive the hemispherical richness gradient, the spatial structure of the richness gradient for basal groups is statistically indistinguishable from the overall gradient, whereas the richness gradient for derived groups is much shallower than the overall gradient. Finally, modern temperatures and the pattern of climate cooling since the Eocene are indistinguishable as predictors of bird species richness.

Main conclusions  Differences in the richness gradients of basal vs. derived clades suggest that the hemispherical gradient has been strongly influenced by the differential extirpation of species in older, warm-adapted clades from parts of the world that have become cooler in the present. We propose that niche conservatism and global-scale climate change over evolutionary time provide a parsimonious explanation for the contemporary bird latitudinal diversity gradient in the New World, although dispersal limitation of some highly derived clades probably plays a secondary role.