OpenStax Biology 2e
Biodiversity is not evenly distributed on Earth. Lake Victoria contained almost 500 species of cichlids alone, ignoring the other fish families present in the lake. All of these species were found only in Lake Victoria; therefore, the 500 species of cichlids were endemic. Endemic species are found in only one location. Endemics with highly restricted distributions are particularly vulnerable to extinction. Higher taxonomic levels, such as genera and families, can also be endemic. Lake Michigan contains about 79 species of fish, many of which are found in other lakes in North America. What accounts for the difference in fish diversity in these two lakes? Lake Victoria is an ancient tropical lake, while Lake Michigan is a recently formed temperate lake. Lake Michigan in its present form is only about 7,000 years old, while Lake Victoria in its present form is about 15,000 years old, although its basin is about 400,000 years in age. Biogeographers have suggested these two factors, latitude and age, are two of several hypotheses to explain biodiversity patterns on the planet.
One of the oldest observed patterns in ecology is that species biodiversity in almost every taxonomic group increases as latitude declines. In other words, biodiversity increases closer to the equator.
It is not yet clear why biodiversity increases closer to the equator, but scientists have several hypotheses. One factor may be the greater age of the ecosystems in the tropics versus those in temperate regions; the temperate regions were largely devoid of life or were drastically reduced during the last glaciation. The idea is that greater age provides more time for speciation. Another possible explanation is the increased direct energy the tropics receive from the sun versus the decreased intensity of the solar energy that temperate and polar regions receive. Tropical ecosystem complexity may promote speciation by increasing the heterogeneity, or number of ecological niches, in the tropics relative to higher latitudes. The greater heterogeneity provides more opportunities for coevolution, specialization, and perhaps greater selection pressures leading to population differentiation. However, this hypothesis suffers from some circularity—ecosystems with more species encourage speciation, but how did they get more species to begin with?
The tropics have been perceived as being more stable than temperate regions, which have a pronounced climate and day-length seasonality. The tropics have their own forms of seasonality, such as rainfall, but they are generally assumed to be more stable environments and this stability might promote speciation into highly specialized niches.
Regardless of the mechanisms, it is certainly true that all levels of biodiversity are greatest in the tropics. Additionally, the rate of endemism is highest, and there are more biodiversity “hotspots.” However, this richness of diversity also means that knowledge of species is unfortunately very low, and there is a high potential for biodiversity loss.
Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e