15.1.2 Patterns of Biodiversity

Latitudinal gradients : The diversity of plants and animals is not uniform throughout the world but shows a rather uneven distribution. For many group of animals or plants, there are interesting patterns in diversity, the most well- known being the latitudinal gradient in diversity.

In general, species diversity decreases as we move away from the equator towards the poles. With very few exceptions, tropics (latitudinal range of 23.5° N to 23.5° S) harbour more species than temperate or polar areas. Colombia located near the equator has nearly 1,400 species of birds while New York at 41° N has 105 species and Greenland at 71° N only 56 species.

India, with much of its land area in the tropical latitudes, has more than 1,200 species of birds. A forest in a tropical region like Equador has up to 10 times as many species of vascular plants as a forest of equal area in a temperate region like the Midwest of the USA.

The largely tropical Amazonian rain forest in South America has the greatest biodiversity on earth- it is home to more than 40,000 species of plants, 3,000 of fishes, 1,300 of birds, 427 of mammals, 427 of amphibians, 378 of reptiles and of more than 1,25,000 invertebrates. Scientists estimate that in these rain forests there might be at least two million insect species waiting to be discovered and named.

What is so special about tropics that might account for their greater biological diversity?

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have proposed various hypotheses; some important ones are

  • Speciation is generally a function of time, unlike temperate regions subjected to frequent glaciations in the past, tropical latitudes have remained relatively undisturbed for millions of years and thus, had a long evolutionary time for species diversification,
  • Tropical environments, unlike temperate ones, are less seasonal, relatively more constant and predictable. Such constant environments promote niche specialisation and lead to a greater species diversity
  • There is more solar energy available in the tropics, which contributes to higher productivity; this in turn might contribute indirectly to greater diversity.

Species-Area relationships: During his pioneering and extensive explorations in the wilderness of South American jungles, the great German naturalist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt observed that within a region species richness increased with increasing explored area, but only up to a limit.

In fact, the relation between species richness and area for a wide variety of taxa (angiosperm plants, birds, bats, freshwater fishes) turns out to be a rectangular hyperbola.

On a logarithmic scale, the relationship is a straight line described by the equation log S = log C + Z log A where S= Species richness A= Area Z = slope of the line (regression coefficient) C = Y-intercept Ecologists have discovered that the value of Z lies in the range of 0.1 to 0.2, regardless of the taxonomic group or the region (whether it is the plants in Britain, birds in California or molluscs in New York state, the slopes of the regression line are amazingly similar).

But, if you analyse the species-area relationships among very large areas like the entire continents, you will find that the slope of the line to be much steeper (Z values in the range of 0.6 to 1.2).

For example, for frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds and mammals in the tropical forests of different continents, the slope is found to be 1.15. What do steeper slopes mean in this context?

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