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Curr Biol. 2009 Jul 28;19(14):R575-83. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.047.

Climate as a driver of evolutionary change.

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Department of Paleobiology, MRC-121, National Museum of Natural History, PO Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013-7012, USA.


The link between biodiversity and climate has been obvious to biologists since the work of von Humboldt in the early 1800s, but establishing the relationship of climate to ecological and evolutionary patterns is more difficult. On evolutionary timescales, climate can affect supply of energy by biotic and abiotic effects. Some of the best evidence for a link between biodiversity and climate comes from latitudinal gradients in diversity, which provide an avenue to explore the more general relationship between climate and evolution. Among the wide range of biotic hypotheses, those with the greatest empirical support indicate that warmer climates have provided the energetic foundation for increased biodiversity by fostering greater population size and thus increased extinction resistance; have increased metabolic scope; have allowed more species to exploit specialized niches as a result of greater available energy; and generated faster speciation and/or lower extinction rates. In combination with geologic evidence for carbon dioxide levels and changing areas of tropical seas, these observations provide the basis for a simple, first-order model of the relationship between climate through the Phanerozoic and evolutionary patterns and diversity. Such a model suggests that we should expect greatest marine diversity during globally warm intervals with dispersed continents, broad shelves and moderately extensive continental seas. Demonstrating a significant evolutionary response to either climate or climatic change is challenging, however, because of continuing uncertainties over patterns of Phanerozoic marine diversity and the variety of factors beyond climate that influence evolution.

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