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Exploring the phylogenetic history of mammal species richness


T. Jonathan Davies, Department of Biology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada H3A 1B1. E-mail:


Aim  At broad geographical scales, species richness is a product of three basic processes: speciation, extinction and migration. However, determining which of these processes predominates is a major challenge. Whilst palaeontological studies can provide information on speciation and extinction rates, data are frequently lacking. Here we use a recent dated phylogenetic tree of mammals to explore the relative importance of these three processes in structuring present-day richness gradients.

Location  The global terrestrial biosphere.

Methods  We combine macroecological data with phylogenetic methods more typically used in community ecology to describe the phylogenetic history of regional faunas. Using simulations, we explore two simple phylogenetic metrics, the mean and variance in the pairwise distances between taxa, and describe their relationship to phylogenetic tree topology. We then use these two metrics to characterize the evolutionary relationships among mammal species assemblages across the terrestrial biome.

Results  We show that the mean and variance in the pairwise distances describe phylogenetic tree topology well, but are less sensitive to phylogenetic uncertainty than more direct measures of tree shape. We find the phylogeny for South American mammals is imbalanced and ‘stemmy’ (long branches towards the root), consistent with recent diversification within evolutionarily disparate lineages. In contrast, the phylogeny for African mammals is balanced and ‘tippy’ (long branches towards the tips), more consistent with the slow accumulation of diversity over long times, reflecting the Old World origin of many mammal clades.

Main conclusions  We show that phylogeny can accurately capture biogeographical processes operating at broad spatial scales and over long time periods. Our results support inferences from the fossil record – that the New World tropics are a diversity cradle whereas the Old World tropics are a museum of old diversity.