The latitudinal position of peak marine diversity in living and fossil biotas


Matthew G. Powell, Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Juniata College, 1700 Moore Street, Huntingdon, PA 16652, USA.


Aim  Peak marine taxonomic diversity has only rarely occurred at or near the equator during the Phanerozoic Eon, in contrast to the present-day pattern. This fundamental difference is difficult to reconcile because the latitude at which peak diversity occurs for living marine taxa has not yet been explicitly determined at a broad taxonomic and spatial scale. Here, we attempt to determine this value in order to compare the contemporary and fossil patterns directly.

Location  Our data are global in coverage.

Methods  We used a literature compilation of 149 present-day marine latitudinal diversity gradients. We summed the number of marine taxa that exhibited peak diversity within 10° latitudinal bins. In addition, we recorded locality data, general habitat (benthic/pelagic), and the taxonomic level of the study organisms.

Results  We found that peak diversity for most sampled marine taxa currently occurs between 10° and 20° N, even after correcting for a Northern Hemisphere sampling bias. Moreover, this peak position is a global phenomenon: it is found across habitats and higher taxa, within all sampled ocean basins, and on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Benthic taxa, which dominate our data, exhibit one peak at 10°–20° N, while pelagic taxa exhibit a peak at 10°–20° N and an additional peak at 10°–20° S, producing a distinct trough at the equator.

Main conclusions  Our data indicate that peak marine diversity for many taxa is currently within 10°–20° N rather than at the equator, and that this is not likely to result from either undersampling at lower latitudes or the pattern being dominated by a particular taxon. Possible explanations may include a coincidence with the intertropical convergence zone, a mid-domain effect, abundant shallow marine habitat, or high ocean temperatures at latitudes nearest the equator. Regardless of its exact cause, the position of peak diversity should be considered a fundamental feature of the latitudinal diversity gradient that must be accounted for within attempts to explain the latter’s existence.