Environmental harshness, latitude and incipient speciation



Are rates of evolution and speciation fastest where diversity is greatest – the tropics? A commonly accepted theory links the latitudinal diversity gradient to a speciation pump model whereby the tropics produce species at a faster rate than extra-tropical regions. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Botero et al. (2014) test the speciation pump model using subspecies richness patterns for more than 9000 species of birds and mammals as a proxy for incipient speciation opportunity. Rather than using latitudinal centroids, the authors investigate the role of various environmental correlates of latitude as drivers of subspecies richness. Their key finding points to environmental harshness as a positive predictor of subspecies richness. The authors link high subspecies richness in environmental harsh areas to increased opportunities for geographic range fragmentation and/or faster rates of trait evolution as drivers of incipient speciation. Because environmental harshness generally increases with latitude, these results suggest that opportunity for incipient speciation is lowest where species richness is highest. The authors interpret this finding as incompatible with the view of the tropics as a cradle of diversity. Their results are consistent with a growing body of evidence that reproductive isolation and speciation occur fastest at high latitudes.