Ecology Spatial Patterns of Species Biodiversity in Terrestrial Environments
Scott Franklin, Xiujuan Qiao, Zhijun Lu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0179


Why do some areas of the world have greater biodiversity than others? How do we preserve this biodiversity in the face of the sixth mass extinction? Spatial patterns of biodiversity provide core knowledge for conservation, and understanding the mechanisms for the assembly and maintenance of species co-occurrences remains one of the key goals of community ecology. Biodiversity generally refers to the number of species in a given area but can include other measures of diversity. Patterns of biodiversity and the mechanisms that determine those patterns depend on scale, so the spatial pattern of biodiversity of a park that contains a regional gradient is determined by different mechanisms than the spatial pattern of biodiversity for a latitudinal gradient. Some of the earliest work examining spatial patterns of biodiversity included comparisons among elevational and altitudinal gradients by Alexander von Humboldt and speciation and endemism typical of island systems as well as phylogeographic patterns by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Generalizations of patterns formed from multiple works, including the decrease of biodiversity from the equator to the poles and the increase of biodiversity with an increase in area studied. Many such patterns were formalized into theories in the latter 1900s, explaining biodiversity based on area, colonization and extinction of species (e.g., Island Biogeography Theory), niche and neutral theories explaining species co-occurrence, and the history of an area, including phylogeographic history and disturbance regimes. With the advent of genetic testing tools, researchers are now able to test phylogenetic relatedness mechanisms proposed over 150 years ago by Charles Darwin. No one mechanism has been shown to completely control spatial patterns of terrestrial biodiversity for any scale, but there are controls and constraints that seem to repeatedly appear in the literature; such patterns are not random and their mechanisms partly known. Application of this knowledge forms the basis of conservation biology. Patterns allow organizations to focus resources on high biodiversity areas and determine rarity of highly diverse communities. Mechanisms that determine these patterns allow us to predict threats of extinction and community response to climate change and disturbances, both anthropogenic and natural. The readings and summaries in this bibliography provide a historical perspective, major patterns suggested by data from global to local scales, a brief review of the major theories explaining these patterns, and a brief review of the application of this knowledge for conservation.

Developing the Concept

General overviews of biodiversity started to appear in the 1980s with collections of papers (Soulé 1986; Wilson and Peter 1988) and attempts to document the number of Eukaryotes on earth (e.g., May 1988). The first comprehensive review was Rosenzweig 1995, followed by books overviewing analytical techniques for studying diversity; Colwell 2009 gives a concise summary. At smaller scales, scientists also started to examine more thoroughly the implications of space on ecological processes and factors governing local community assembly and diversity, which led to the metacommunity concept, or the spatial study of community ecology (Holyoak, et al. 2005). Scientists also recognized the relationship between the burgeoning science of landscape ecology and biodiversity (Gutzwiller 2002). A special issue of Ecography offers several papers concerning the spatial and temporal assembly of communities (Svenning 2014). The complexity of measuring diversity and comparing biodiversity among studies and geographical regions is tackled by Magurran and McGill 2011.

  • Colwell, R. K. 2009. Biodiversity: Concepts, patterns, and measurement. In Princeton guide to ecology. Edited by Simon A. Levin, 257–263. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This chapter provides a very brief introduction to the basics of biodiversity.

  • Gutzwiller, K., ed. 2002. Applying landscape ecology in biological conservation. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This text comprehensively introduces how the discipline of landscape ecology is an integral part of biological conservation. The book is divided into five parts, the third being relevant here: landscape change and how this affects biodiversity.

  • Holyoak, M., M. A. Leibold, and R. D. Holt, eds. 2005. Metacommunities: Spatial dynamics and ecological communities. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The collection of empirical, theoretical, and synthetic chapters in metacommunities introduces the concept of a metacommunity and how communities work in fragmented landscapes. The edited volume urges ecologists to expand the spatiotemporal scales of their research.

  • Magurran, A. E., and B. J. McGill, eds. 2011. Biological diversity: Frontiers in measurement and assessment. Cary, NC: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This comprehensive test covers fundamental measurement issues such as sampling, reexamines familiar diversity metrics, discusses species abundance distributions and how best to fit them, explores species occurrence and the spatial structure of biodiversity, and investigates alternative approaches used to assess trait, phylogenetic, and genetic diversity.

  • May, R. M. 1988. How many species are there on earth? Science 241:1441–1449.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.241.4872.1441Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A synthesis of various works at the time answering the question of how many species are on earth and factors affecting biodiversity.

  • Rosenzweig, M. 1995. Species diversity in space and time. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511623387Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A synthetic compilation of larger-scale biodiversity patterns and an attempt to set the agenda of spatial biodiversity research. This book serves as a good introduction by reviewing the best-known patterns of species diversity, such as latitudinal gradient of species and species–area curves and then concluded processes and explanations for these patterns.

  • Soulé, M. E., ed. 1986. Conservation biology: The science of scarcity and diversity. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Holistic edited papers from a symposium covering biodiversity issues in temperate and tropical settings, practical and basic ecological knowledge, and interdisciplinary and ethical challenges for conservation of biodiversity.

  • Svenning, J. -C., ed. 2014. Special issue: International Biogeography Society, 6th Biennial International Conference. Ecography 37:1022–1023.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A special issue on temporal and spatial perspectives regarding community assembly and biodiversity; provides a state-of-knowledge on the subject.

  • Wilson, E. O., and F. M. Peter, eds. 1988. Biodiversity. Washington, DC: National Academy.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A complete text providing and overview of all aspects of biodiversity (albeit not focused on spatial issues per se), from how biodiversity affects humans to restoration efficacy. The text provides examples of monitoring, research from a variety of systems, and policies and alternatives for habitat destruction. This is a good introductory text with numerous discussion examples.

back to top

Your subscription doesn't include the subject of this book.