Aim Phylogenetic conservatism or heritability of the geographical range sizes of species (i.e. the tendency for closely related species to share similar range sizes) has been predicted to occur because of the strong phylogenetic conservatism of niche traits. However, the extent of such heritability in range size is disputed and the role of biology in shaping this attribute remains unclear. Here, we investigate the level of heritability of geographical range sizes that is generated from neutral models assuming no biological differences between species.
Methods We used three different neutral models, which differ in their speciation mode, to simulate the life-history of 250,000 individuals in a square lattice of 50 × 50 cells. These individuals can speciate, reproduce, migrate and die in the metacommunity according to stochastic events. We ran each model for 3000 steps and recorded the range size of each species at each step. The heritability of geographical range size was assessed using an asymmetry coefficient between range sizes of sister species and using the coefficient of correlation between the range sizes of ancestors and their descendants.
Results Our results demonstrated the ability of neutral models to mimic some important observed patterns in the heritability of geographical range size. Consistently, sister species exhibited higher asymmetry in range sizes than expected by chance, and correlations between the range sizes of ancestor–descendant species pairs, although often weak, were almost invariably positive.
Main conclusions Our findings suggest that, even without any biological trait differences, statistically significant heritability in the geographical range sizes of species can be found. This heritability is weaker than that observed in some empirical studies, but suggests that even here a substantial component of heritability may not necessarily be associated with niche conservatism. We also conclude that both present-day and fossil data sets may provide similar information on the heritability of the geographical range sizes of species, while the omission of rare species will tend to overestimate this heritability.