The evolution of a tropical biodiversity hotspot

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Science  11 Dec 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6522, pp. 1343-1348
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz6970

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Diversity does not drive speciation

The role of the environment in the origin of new species has long been debated. Harvey et al. examined the evolutionary history and species diversity of suboscine birds in the tropics (see the Perspective by Morlon). Contrary to expectations that the tropics have higher rates of speciation, the authors observed that higher and more constant speciation rates occur in harsh environments relative to the tropics. Thus, for this group of birds, diversification in temperate to Arctic regions followed by the movement and retention of species in the tropics results in their higher local levels of species diversity.

Science, this issue p. 1343; see also p. 1268


The tropics are the source of most biodiversity yet inadequate sampling obscures answers to fundamental questions about how this diversity evolves. We leveraged samples assembled over decades of fieldwork to study diversification of the largest tropical bird radiation, the suboscine passerines. Our phylogeny, estimated using data from 2389 genomic regions in 1940 individuals of 1287 species, reveals that peak suboscine species diversity in the Neotropics is not associated with high recent speciation rates but rather with the gradual accumulation of species over time. Paradoxically, the highest speciation rates are in lineages from regions with low species diversity, which are generally cold, dry, unstable environments. Our results reveal a model in which species are forming faster in environmental extremes but have accumulated in moderate environments to form tropical biodiversity hotspots.

  • These authors contributed equally to this work.

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