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Syst Biol. 2011 May;60(3):343-57. doi: 10.1093/sysbio/syr006. Epub 2011 Feb 28.

Causes of plant diversification in the Cape biodiversity hotspot of South Africa.

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  • 1Division of Biology, Imperial College London, Silwood Park Campus, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 7PY, UK.


The Cape region of South Africa is one of the most remarkable hotspots of biodiversity with a flora comprising more than 9000 plant species, almost 70% of which are endemic, within an area of only ± 90,000 km2. Much of the diversity is due to an exceptionally large contribution of just a few clades that radiated substantially within this region, but little is known about the causes of these radiations. Here, we present a comprehensive analysis of plant diversification, using near complete species-level phylogenies of four major Cape clades (more than 470 species): the genus Protea, a tribe of legumes (Podalyrieae) and two speciose genera within the iris family (Babiana and Moraea), representing three of the seven largest plant families in this biodiversity hotspot. Combining these molecular phylogenetic data with ecological and biogeographical information, we tested key hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the radiation of the Cape flora. Our results show that the radiations started throughout the Oligocene and Miocene and that net diversification rates have remained constant through time at globally moderate rates. Furthermore, using sister-species comparisons to assess the impact of different factors on speciation, we identified soil type shifts as the most important cause of speciation in Babiana, Moraea, and Protea, whereas shifts in fire-survival strategy is the most important factor for Podalyrieae. Contrary to previous findings in other groups, such as orchids, pollination syndromes show a high degree of phylogenetic conservatism, including groups with a large number of specialized pollination syndromes like Moraea. We conclude that the combination of complex environmental conditions together with relative climatic stability promoted high speciation and/or low extinction rates as the most likely scenario leading to present-day patterns of hyperdiversity in the Cape.

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