A General, Synthetic Model for Predicting Biodiversity Gradients from Environmental Geometry

Am Nat. 2016 Oct;188(4):E85-97. doi: 10.1086/688171. Epub 2016 Aug 9.


Latitudinal and elevational biodiversity gradients fascinate ecologists, and have inspired dozens of explanations. The geometry of the abiotic environment is sometimes thought to contribute to these gradients, yet evaluations of geometric explanations are limited by a fragmented understanding of the diversity patterns they predict. This article presents a mathematical model that synthesizes multiple pathways by which environmental geometry can drive diversity gradients. The model characterizes species ranges by their environmental niches and limits on range sizes and places those ranges onto the simplified geometries of a sphere or cone. The model predicts nuanced and realistic species-richness gradients, including latitudinal diversity gradients with tropical plateaus and mid-latitude inflection points and elevational diversity gradients with low-elevation diversity maxima. The model also illustrates the importance of a mid-environment effect that augments species richness at locations with intermediate environments. Model predictions match multiple empirical biodiversity gradients, depend on ecological traits in a testable fashion, and formally synthesize elements of several geometric models. Together, these results suggest that previous assessments of geometric hypotheses should be reconsidered and that environmental geometry may play a deeper role in driving biodiversity gradients than is currently appreciated.

Keywords: biological diversity; environmental geometry; mathematical model; niche; species range; species richness.

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity*
  • Climate
  • Food Chain
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Phenotype