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Niche conservatism and the differences in species richness at the transition of tropical and subtropical climates in South America

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Although detected long ago, latitudinal disparity in species richness lacks a consensus regarding its underlying mechanisms. We evaluated whether the main predictions derived from the tropical niche conservatism hypothesis help to explain differences regarding species richness and turnover of species and lineages between forests located in tropical and subtropical climates. If tropical niches are retained, we predict that only a subset of tropical lineages disperses and establishes outside the tropics; tip‐level phylogenetic clustering increases outside the tropics; and the climatic variation drives species richness indirectly via constraints to the distribution of lineages. We compiled 58 checklists along tropical and subtropical sites of riparian forests in southeastern South America. We tested the frequency of niches shifts for species and lineages and the abundance of taxa in each climate. Next, we checked the likelihood of pathways linking climatic and spatial predictors directly with species richness and via phylogenetic clustering estimates. Several lineages only occurred in the tropics, and the number of species and lineages that occurred in both climates was lower than expected by chance. Conversely, few lineages were exclusively subtropical and diversified in the subtropics. Phylogenetic clustering increased in subtropical sites and was correlated with decreasing species richness. An interaction between mean temperature of coldest quarter and precipitation seasonality explained most variation in species richness via increases in phylogenetic clustering. These results support an important contribution of climatic niche conservatism to explain richness disparities between tropics and subtropics, mainly because of the inability of most lineages to colonize the subtropics, which is very likely related to cold intolerance. Since niche conservatism likely drives most of the variation in tree species richness in the region, it provides a mechanistic interpretation of the observed patterns, thus fostering the understanding of richness disparities between these tropical and subtropical tree communities.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Depto de Botânica, Univ. Federal de São Carlos, Via Washington Luiz, Km 235, CEP 13565-905, CP 676, SP, Brazil

Publication date: October 1, 2012

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