Growing up in England I was fond of woods, but when I went to live in a cloud forest (which is a tropical rainforest in the mountains) in central America, three things stood out as massively different to the forests I knew in England.
- There was a huge variety of plants. In the UK, most woods have the same few trees and plants repeated – oaks, birches, sycamores and ash for the trees; bracken and brambles at ground level. In the cloud forest, almost no tree or ground level plant was repeated, to put it technically, it had a greater species diversity.
- The ecosystem was far more interactive than I was used to. Trees were laden with epiphytes, and there was barely a leaf without fungus, insects or a virus. It seemed that almost every plant surface had something else growing on it. In the UK, there are only occasional galls and nests, the odd bit of moss, and epiphytic plants are rare.
- The variety in colour, shape and habit of the cloud forest plants was huge, at every turn I uncovered new leaf shapes and colours, whereas in the UK there are mostly green leaves growing in a few different patterns. (Note that I am talking about native woods in the UK here, we import many different garden plants from other countries and those have a greater variety of shapes and colours)
The differences were so immense and fascinating, I started researching as soon as I was able to.
What I discovered is that there is higher diversity of species and greater number of species (species richness) the closer to the equator you get. This is known as the latitudinal diversity gradient.
Science hasn’t quite explained it yet, but there are theories, I also have my own which I want to share. I’ve not come across anyone suggesting the same explanation, although the chances someone has, somewhere.
- The greatest number of species for the major taxa – flowering plants, ferns, mammals, birds, reptiles, fresh water fish, amphibians, insects and snails – are in the tropics.
- Species diversity and richness increase as you travel towards the equator.
For example: The 1950s doc ‘Evolution in the Tropics’ by Dobzhansky stated that Greenland had 56 species of birds, New York 195, Guatemala 469, Panama 1100 and Colombia 1395.
- While tropical moist forests have the greatest diversity, even tropical savannahs and grasslands are more diverse than similar landscapes in temperate areas. This is especially important, because it suggests that the difference is not just due to terrain, but also latitude.
- Recent research suggests that there are more fungi species in the tropics too. There isn’t enough known about diversity of bacteria species across the globe.
There are a number of theories. They include factors such as the Ice Age, which affected the poles greatly and the tropics less so; the size of the tropics compared to other areas; and the higher levels of predation so that the fight to survive drives evolution. All of the theories are contested, a few can explain part of the difference, but not all. Some are circular, eg. there is greater species diversity, because there are more competitors for food sources.
For more detail try A Neotropical Companion by Kricher (where much of my info comes from) or Wikipedia which has a number of other theories too.
My Theory – it’s all about the small things
One notable difference about the equator is that there is little change in light and temperature. Where as in the UK the nights are very long in the winter and short in the summer, in Central America it gets dark at 5pm all year round. Temperatures are also more stable; slightly closer to the poles, the more temperatures can fluctuate from minus degrees in the winter to scorching heat in the summer. In the tropics, it’s pretty much hot all year round – or in high up cloud forests it’s consistently warm.
This lack of change makes some difference to larger animals and plants since they don’t need to go into dormancy they can grow and reproduce all year round. But their life cycles are still fairly slow, reproducing once a year or every few years. However, this difference is far more significant when it comes to very small organisms because their lifecycles are so much shorter, and they are more affected by changes in temperature and light. Those quick lifecycles mean they can mutate, adapt and evolve at far greater rates too.
So I believe that is why there is greater species richness, abundance and diversity of small organisms at the equator, but the difference is not so pronounced in larger organisms, so what else is a factor?
I believe that it is the species diversity of smaller organisms that directly causes the diversity in larger organisms through parasitism and symbiosis. Parasitism drives evolution and symbiosis aids survival.
First, some terminology
Parasites are usually insects, fungi, small plants or bacteria and are harmful to larger plants and animals, taking what they need without concern for the host. Organisms often evolve to protect themselves from threat. Parasites are a threat. The more threats, and the more varied the threats, the more animals and plants need to evolve to fight them. This is a common, but as yet unproved theory.
For example: If a plant has a mutation of hairy leaves that deter insects, then in an environment with many insects, that mutation is more likely to lead to the survival of that plant and the proliferation of the hairy-leaf gene.
Symbiotic relationships tend to drive specialisation and help organisms to survive. Because the rainforest is so crowded, there is a constant battle for nutrients, space and light, so forming an alliance is beneficial. Through the generations, that alliance tends to become tighter and more exclusive. Symbiosis can be seen between many animals, plants, fungi and bacteria.
For example: Ants forming a protective army inside an acacia tree and fighting off any animal that comes to eat it. Or aroid flowers that are only pollinated by one type of fly, so they evolve to give off a scent that attracts that specific fly (often rotting meat). In a crowded rainforest, if all plants targeted all insects, then many plants would get missed and never pollinated. Forming a symbiotic relationship is like putting an address on a letter, instead of flinging up in the air and hoping someone reads it.
The Small Things
The ideal conditions for fungi to grow are warm moist ones. In the UK fungi live in the ground unseen, all year round. Then in autumn they produce fruiting bodies – ie the mushrooms that enable them to reproduce – that’s because the soil has warmed over the summer and there’s plenty of rain. In the tropics, the soil never cools, and humidity is constant, this means the reproductive phase can also continue all year round.
Why fungi are important to larger organisms – fungi can be both beneficial and harmful to plants. Some fungi form a symbiotic relationship with them, growing on their roots and enabling them to take in nutrients that the plants would struggle to access on their own – these are known as mycorrhizal fungi. This harmoniuos relationship can take centuries to form. This is one reason why it’s so difficult to regrow plants on an area that has been de-forested, because the mycorrhizal fungi are no longer there, and the plants can’t access nutrients without them.
Fungi can also be parasitic and break down healthy wood. That’s what fungus does essentially, breaks stuff down, it’s a decomposer – that’s good when it’s breaking down dead matter to release the nutrients, but bad when it breaks down living material.
Like fungus, the ideal conditions for bacteria to grow is warmth and moisture, they are also sensitive to light changes. So, the equator, and especially the rainforest at the equator, has perfect conditions.
Why is bacteria important to larger organisms – like fungi, bacteria can be both good and bad for plants. Some bacteria work in a similar way to fungi, attaching to roots and breaking down nutrients (specifically nitrogen) into a form the plants can absorb. And, like fungi, bacteria can be harmful, causing diseases.
Insects also like warmth and wet. We know in the UK if there is a warm summer followed by a lot of rain, then the insects will increase. In the tropics, those are the constant conditions. Even in drier areas, the consistency of temperature is enough to maintain insect populations.
Why insects are important to larger organisms – insects can also be a blessing or a burden to plants. Leaf cutter ants will ravage a tree, defoliating it, but as described above, ants can protect trees too. The photo above shows a number of insect galls on plants, where parasitic insects alter how a plant grows to create their habitats.
To put it simply…
According to my theory,
- Smaller organisms thrive in stable environments where light and temperatures are fairly constant all year round.
- The resulting high numbers and quick life cycle leads to greater opportunities for them to mutate and evolve.
- Smaller organisms affect the number and diversity of larger organisms through parasitism and symbiosis.
- Parasitism drives species richness, by forcing larger organisms to evolve to survive. Symbiosis aids survival and promotes specialisation.
- So the numbers and diversity of larger organisms increases.