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Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution$
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Thomas N. Sherratt and David M. Wilkinson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199548606

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199548606.001.0001

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Why are the Tropics so Diverse?

Why are the Tropics so Diverse?

Chapter:
5 Why are the Tropics so Diverse?
Source:
Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution
Author(s):

Thomas N. Sherratt

David M. Wilkinson

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780199548606.003.0009

Our opening quotation describes Charles Darwin’s first experience of tropical forest on 29 February 1832. He had been looking forward to this moment for several years. While completing his studies at the University of Cambridge he had read Alexander von Humboldt’s accounts of tropical natural history and resolved that he too must experience the luxuriant vegetation and diversity of tropical species at first hand. Initially, Darwin planned to visit the subtropical island of Tenerife; however, this plan was superseded by the opportunity to join H.M.S. Beagle’s circumnavigation of the Earth—to his great disappointment Darwin never did get to land on Tenerife, although he saw it from the sea as the Beagle passed close by. Since Darwin’s time we have learnt much about the nature of biological diversity, both in the tropics and at higher latitudes. In this chapter, we review current knowledge of tropical diversity and how it compares with diversity at higher latitudes, before going on to discuss the various explanations that have been put forward to explain why the tropics have so many species. Here we define the tropics as the area between the Tropic of Cancer (23°28´ N) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23°28´ S) when we are discussing the modern world. In discussions of past climates, we refer to areas as ‘tropical’ if their reconstructed climates are similar to those currently experienced in the modern tropics. While we describe below how diversity changes with latitude, it is obvious that latitude itself is only part of a grid system that allows us to define the location of a point on the Earth’s surface, so it cannot itself have a direct effect on the number of species. However, many variables such as climate and land or ocean area are correlated with latitude and may provide an explanation for tropical diversity. Indeed, latitude itself is defined by the rotation of the Earth about its axis—a fundamentally abiotic (i.e. non-biological) planetary event. It follows that the ultimate cause of the gradient in diversity over latitude must be attributable to abiotic factors that are correlated with latitude, even if biological factors subsequently play a role in maintaining or promoting this diversity.

Keywords:   abiotic environment, bacteria, ciliates, diatoms, extinctions, fixation, geographical barriers, latitude, mountain pass argument, nitrogen

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