Evolutionary dynamics of the elevational diversity gradient in passerine birds

Paul van Els, Leonel Herrera-Alsina*, Alex L. Pigot, Rampal S. Etienne

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Low-elevation regions harbour the majority of the world's species diversity compared to high-elevation areas. This global gradient suggests that lowland species have had more time to diversify, or that net diversification rates have been higher in the lowlands. However, highlands seem to be cradles of diversity as they contain many young endemics, suggesting that their rates of speciation are exceptionally fast. Here we use a phylogenetic diversification model that accounts for the dispersal of species between different elevations to examine the evolutionary dynamics of the elevational diversity gradient in passerine birds, a group that has radiated globally to occupy almost all elevations and latitudes. We find strong support for a model in which passerines diversify at the same rate in the highlands and the lowlands but in which the per-capita rate of dispersal from high to low elevations is more than twice as fast as that in the reverse direction. This suggests that while there is no consistent trend in diversification across elevations, part of the diversity generated by highland regions migrates into the lowlands, thus setting up the observed gradient in passerine diversity. We find that this process drives tropical regions but for temperate areas, the analysis could be hampered by their lower richness. Despite their lower diversity, highland regions are disproportionally important for maintaining diversity in the adjacent lowlands.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1259-1265
Number of pages7
JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
Issue number9
Early online date22-Jul-2021
Publication statusPublished - Sep-2021


  • Animals
  • Biodiversity
  • Biological Evolution
  • Passeriformes/genetics
  • Phylogeny

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