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Ecology. 2011 Apr;92(4):797-804.

Microbes do not follow the elevational diversity patterns of plants and animals.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA


The elevational gradient in plant and animal diversity is one of the most widely documented patterns in ecology and, although no consensus explanation exists, many hypotheses have been proposed over the past century to explain these patterns. Historically, research on elevational diversity gradients has focused almost exclusively on plant and animal taxa. As a result, we do not know whether microbes exhibit elevational gradients in diversity that parallel those observed for macroscopic taxa. This represents a key knowledge gap in ecology, especially given the ubiquity, abundance, and functional importance of microbes. Here we show that, across a montane elevational gradient in eastern Peru, bacteria living in three distinct habitats (organic soil, mineral soil, and leaf surfaces) exhibit no significant elevational gradient in diversity (r2<0.17, P>0.1 in all cases), in direct contrast to the significant diversity changes observed for plant and animal taxa across the same montane gradient (r2>0.75, P<0.001 in all cases). This finding suggests that the biogeographical patterns exhibited by bacteria are fundamentally different from those of plants and animals, highlighting the need for the development of more inclusive concepts and theories in biogeography to explain these disparities.

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