Aim Negative relationships between body mass and substitution rates have previously been reported. However, most of these studies have involved contrasted taxa that, due to their highly divergent phylogenetic histories, also differ in many additional characteristics other than mass. In particular, there has been little examination of the potentially confounding effects of climate or population size. Here we test for differences in rates of microevolution among bird species that, although differing in mass, are nonetheless very closely related phylogenetic pairs. We additionally tested for latitudinal/elevational and population size effects across these contrasts.
Methods The tempo of microevolution within the cytochrome b gene of mitochondrial DNA was compared between closely related bird species that differed in body mass, using 130 phylogenetically independent species pairs. In order to minimize climate effects, pairs not having overlapping latitudinal ranges were discarded. In addition, a subset of pairs was identified and analysed that involved comparisons between species that have different latitudinal or elevational midpoints.
Results Species with smaller mass had substitution rates marginally faster than those with larger mass (small : large median ratio = 1.05). However, this result was only statistically significant when data were pruned to eliminate comparisons in which population or range size also varied substantially between contrasted species. Latitude and elevation had a much stronger association with substitution rates than body mass within the subset of pairs (n = 30) that also differed in their spatial distributions: lower elevation or latitude species had substantially more substitutions than those at higher latitudes or elevations (low : high ratio = 1.35). Furthermore, when the dataset was pruned of pairs in which body mass was confounded by latitude or elevation, the body mass effect was eliminated.
Main conclusions Body mass is known to correlate with latitude, so that the latitudinal/elevational association with microevolution we found might either be additive to, or causal of, the body mass effect. These results are consistent with the evolutionary speed hypothesis, which suggests that latitudinal diversity gradients derive from variation in the rate of microevolution. Our findings also serve to raise concerns about biogeographical studies that use genetic distances between taxa to estimate time since divergence.