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Proc Biol Sci. 2012 Jun 22;279(1737):2323-9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0075. Epub 2012 Feb 8.

Why are there so few fish in the sea?

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-5245, USA.


The most dramatic gradient in global biodiversity is between marine and terrestrial environments. Terrestrial environments contain approximately 75-85% of all estimated species, but occupy only 30 per cent of the Earth's surface (and only approx. 1-10% by volume), whereas marine environments occupy a larger area and volume, but have a smaller fraction of Earth's estimated diversity. Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain this disparity, but there have been few large-scale quantitative tests. Here, we analyse patterns of diversity in actinopterygian (ray-finned) fishes, the most species-rich clade of marine vertebrates, containing 96 per cent of fish species. Despite the much greater area and productivity of marine environments, actinopterygian richness is similar in freshwater and marine habitats (15 150 versus 14 740 species). Net diversification rates (speciation-extinction) are similar in predominantly freshwater and saltwater clades. Both habitats are dominated by two hyperdiverse but relatively recent clades (Ostariophysi and Percomorpha). Remarkably, trait reconstructions (for both living and fossil taxa) suggest that all extant marine actinopterygians were derived from a freshwater ancestor, indicating a role for ancient extinction in explaining low marine richness. Finally, by analysing an entirely aquatic group, we are able to better sort among potential hypotheses for explaining the paradoxically low diversity of marine environments.

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