The topic of this thesis is the latitudinal diversity gradient: the general increase in numbers of species from high latitudes towards the equator. Although it is a well-documented and very general pattern, there is little consensus among biologists as to the causes of high tropical species richness. In Chapter 1 I give an overview of the latitudinal diversity gradient and hypotheses proposed to explain it, and outline a framework for developing and testing hypotheses. The emphasis in this thesis is on non-equilibrium hypotheses, and in particular on the idea that rates of species diversification are higher at low latitudes.
In Chapter 2 I directly test the hypothesis that rates of species diversification increase towards the equator, using the phylogenetic method of sister-group comparisons. For birds and butterflies, 1 show that there does indeed appear to be an increase in rates of diversification towards lower latitudes. One possible explanation for this pattern links climatic conditions at low latitudes to faster speciation, via a causal chain which includes a higher rate of molecular evolution. In Chapter 3 I test the prediction that rates of molecular evolution are faster at low latitudes, using phylogenies reconstructed from DNA sequence data for birds. Although the results provide no evidence for a latitudinal effect on rates of cytb and ND2 evolution in birds, this chapter demonstrates a way in which further tests on a wider range of genes and taxa can be carried out as more sequence data becomes available.
If rates of diversification are higher in the tropics, this may result from latitudinal gradients in life history traits which could influence rates of speciation or extinction. However, previous attempts to test for such patterns have rarely controlled for phylogenetic relationships among species, and have never controlled for geographic range overlap. In Chapter 4 I present a method for analyzing latitudinal variation in life history traits which takes both of these problems into account. For birds, this method indicates strong latitudinal variation in geographic range size and clutch size, less strong variation in body size and niche width, and no variation in the strength of sexual selection. While this does not prove that life history plays a part in generating the latitudinal diversity gradient, a robust demonstration of latitudinal variation in life history traits is an important prerequisite for any hypotheses which link life history with high tropical species richness.
Speciation and extinction rates are believed to vary with species' life history and ecology. If speciation or extinction rates also vary with latitude, we should expect species with certain traits to show stronger latitudinal diversity gradients than others. We should also expect to see latitudinal variation in the macroecological structure of species assemblages. Chapters 5 and 6 confirm these expectations. In Chapter 5 I show that smaller-bodied bird species have steeper latitudinal diversity gradients than larger species. This is reflected in systematic latitudinal variation in the shape of body size frequency distributions, usually thought to be relatively consistent across regions. In Chapter 6 I show that body size - abundance relationships in the Australian marsupial fauna differ considerably between temperate and tropical subsets of the fauna. Whereas the temperate species display the typical negative relationship, the tropical species show no significant relationship. This pattern is consistent with the explanation that extinction rates vary with respect to body size, abundance and the latitude in which a species occurs.
Together, the results of the analyses presented in this thesis provide evidence in favour of the non-equilibrium view that there are more species in the tropics because rates of species diversification are higher. It seems likely that this is due to latitudinal variation in environmental conditions, leading to latitudinal variation in species' life histories and the structure of species assemblages, and to latitudinal variation in rates of speciation or extinction. However, it is still difficult to judge whether it is variation in speciation rate ("cradle" model) or extinction rate ("museum" model) which is of primary importance, or if both are equally important. Further work on this question, applying the large-scale comparative methodology used here, will be necessary to progress towards a full understanding of the high species richness of the tropics.