Variation in species richness across regions and between different groups of organisms is a major feature of evolution. Several factors have been proposed to explain these differences, including heterogeneity in the rates of species diversification and the age of clades. It has been frequently assumed that rapid rates of diversification are coupled to high rates of ecological and morphological evolution, leading to a prediction that remains poorly explored for most species: the positive association between ecological niche divergence, morphological evolution and species diversification. We combined a time-calibrated phylogeny with distribution, ecological and body size data for scaly tree ferns (Cyatheaceae) to test whether rates of species diversification are predicted by the rates at which clades have evolved distinct ecological niches and body sizes. We found that rates of species diversification are positively correlated with rates of ecological and morphological evolution, with rapidly diversifying clades also showing rapidly evolving ecological niches and body sizes. Our results show that rapid diversification of scaly tree ferns is associated with the evolution of species with comparable morphologies that diversified into similar, yet distinct, environments. This suggests parallel evolutionary pathways opening in different tropical regions whenever ecological and geographical opportunities arise. Accordingly, rates of ecological niche and body size evolution are relevant to explain the current patterns of species richness in this ‘ancient’ fern lineage across the tropics.
- Received May 18, 2016.
- Accepted June 16, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.