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Biogeography

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Biogeography

Have you ever wondered how and why species are distributed in certain ways? For example, why a species may be present in one river basin but not another river basin that is in close proximity? Perhaps you have thought about species endemic to only specific habitats or islands. In the following article, we will discuss the study of biogeography, including its definitions, variations, and relation to ecology and evolution. In addition, we will discuss some examples related to biogeography.

Definition of biogeography

Biogeography is a field of evolutionary biology and geography that looks at the geographic distribution of species over time. It combines elements of both biology and geography. Biogeography looks at how the physical environment has and continues to shape the distribution of animal and plant species. Evolution, extinction, speciation, and dispersal all play significant roles in the study of biogeography.

Evolution: Changes to the genotypic or phenotypic characteristics of species populations over time.

Extinction: The worldwide disappearance of all individuals of a given species.

Speciation: How populations of species may evolve into new species.

Dispersal: The movement of individuals or populations of a species from one location to another.

Types of biogeography

The study is typically split into three different types: conservation biogeography, ecological biogeography, and historical biogeography.

Conservation biogeography

Conservation biogeography is the newest form of biogeography, melding the fundamentals of biogeography with conservation concerns. This type of biogeography looks at how the changes in species distribution over time may have affected or continue to affect their conservation status. This involves looking at the many processes (anthropogenic or natural) that may have resulted in these changes.

Ecological biogeography

Ecological biogeography is concerned with the geographic distribution of species at the present time and takes into account the habitat and physiological requirements for the species being studied.

Historical biogeography

Historical biogeography, also referred to as paleobiogeography, is concerned with the historical distribution of species. It looks at how and why the historical distribution of species may have changed over time.

Example

While historical biogeography can deal with extinct species, it also concerns the historical distributions of extant species. For example, historical biogeography may involve looking at the historical distribution of the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris) to inform current reintroduction and conservation efforts. It is vital to know the historical distribution of extant species, because it can allow biologists to identify suitable locations for reintroduction.

Examples of the use of biogeography in studying species distribution

Saltwater crocodile

The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) has the widest distribution of any living crocodilian species, with a range that extends from eastern India in the west to Vanuatu in the east, including much of the tropical world in between. Historically, however, the species had an even broader distribution. Saltwater crocodiles were once found in the Seychelles (off the eastern coast of Africa) and in portions of southern China, including Hong Kong and Hainan Island. The species is believed to have disappeared from China during antiquity and from the Seychelles by 1819. More recently, saltwater crocodiles were also present in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, but disappeared from these countries by the 1970s or 80s (Fig. 1). Biogeography would involve determining the current and historical distribution of the saltwater crocodile, followed by determining the causes of the reduction in distribution and how to prevent further loss or even reintroduce former populations.

In the case of the saltwater crocodile, the primary causes of the reduction in the range are anthropogenic, and include hide-hunting, habitat destruction, and deliberate eradication efforts, among others. Adult saltwater crocodiles can and do prey upon humans, thus the species was quickly eradicated from most major population centers (e.g., Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, etc.). Unfortunately, as the human population continued to expand, the destruction of the species' mangrove and freshwater swamp habitat lead to further declines in distribution. In the case of China, the massive migration of populations southward during the Song Dynasty may have contributed to the declines.

While the species is currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), due to a pre-exploitation sized population in northern Australia and rebounding populations in other areas nearby, it is considered rare in many other regions (e.g., Bangladesh and Myanmar) and extinct in the countries above. As you can see, in this case, all three types of biogeography are involved, particularly historical biogeography (historical range), but also conservation biogeography (reintroduction efforts, current conservation status), and ecological biogeography (current range).

Biogeography The current, possible, and historic geographic distribution of the saltwater crocodile Study Smarter

Figure 1: The current (dark green), possible (light green), and historic (orange) geographic distribution of the saltwater crocodile. Source: Brandon Sideleau, own work

The Wallace Line

The Wallace Line, named after famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, refers to the biogeographical boundary that separates the Asian and Australasian biological regions. The Wallace Line passes through the Makassar Strait, between Borneo and Sulawesi, south through the Java Sea and between the islands of Bali and Lombok. Thousands of years ago, when sea levels were lower, Borneo, Java, and Sumatra islands were all part of a greater landmass connected to the mainland, called Sundaland. As sea levels rose, much of Sundaland became submerged, forming those islands (Fig. 2).

Though the islands became isolated, they still contained wildlife from the Asian mainland. For example, the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica), the Javan leopard (P. pardus melas), the Bornean elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis), the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), and the Tomistoma (Tomistoma schlegelii) are all found on some of these islands that formerly comprised Sundaland and are the same or closely related to mainland species.

In contrast, islands to the east of the Wallace Line were not connected to Sundaland and thus contained different wildlife. These eastern islands, including New Guinea and Sulawesi, contain wildlife not found on the Asian mainland, such as kangaroos (on New Guinea), cuscus, and more. New Guinea and some of the nearby islands were once connected to Australia, and are even today only separated by around 150km of ocean in the Torres Strait north of Queensland's Cape York Peninsula.

Animals that are capable of wider dispersal and swimming (e.g., saltwater crocodiles and some snake and lizard species), on the other hand, are found throughout both regions. As you can see, studying the wildlife to the east and west of the Wallace Line encompasses all three types of biogeography to give us a better understanding of how and why species distributions have changed over time and how this knowledge can help inform future conservation measures.

Biogeography Map illustrating the Wallace Line Study SmarterFigure 2: Map illustrating the Wallace Line (red line) and approximate locations of former exposed land (black lines) prior to sea level rise. Source: Brandon Sideleau, own work

Biogeography helps us understand evolution.

Studying biogeography allows us to better understand how and why species evolved into what they are today and how they may continue to evolve in response to the current environment and projected future selective pressures. Let's look at an example of how a species' geographic distribution may affect its evolution.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the only true "big cat" (Panthera genus) native to the the Americas, as mountain lions (Puma concolor) are not true "big cats". As you may know, some jaguars can be melanistic, which is when they have a black coat. These individuals are commonly referred to as "black panthers" by the lay public, but they are not a distinct species but rather a genetic variation. There can be both melanistic and non-melanistic individuals in a single litter of jaguar cubs. The same is true for the leopard (P. pardus).

How does biogeography factor into this? It has been found that a jaguar's habitat dramatically influences whether or not the melanistic characteristic is selected for or against.

In the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil and Bolivia, melanistic jaguars are either very rare or entirely absent, likely because the habitat is much more open and sparsely forested. In such a habitat, melanistic jaguars would be easily spotted by potential prey species, reducing the fitness of such individuals. In addition, melanistic jaguars would be far easier for human poachers to spot, further reducing fitness. However, in densely forested areas, such as the Amazon, the melanistic trait is beneficial and selected for. Having a melanistic coat renders the jaguar more challenging to spot in dense forests, increasing its chances of successful predation and reducing the chances of being hunted by humans.

Biogeography Figure 3: A wild non-melanistic jaguar in the Pantanal, Brazil (left) and a captive melanistic jaguar (right). Note that the spots are still visible on the melanistic jaguar. Source: Brandon Sideleau, own work (left) and Shutterstock (right) Study Smarter

Figure 3: A wild non-melanistic jaguar in the Pantanal, Brazil (left) and a captive melanistic jaguar (right). Note that the spots are still visible on the melanistic jaguar. Source: Brandon Sideleau, own work (left) and Shutterstock (right)

Global Ecology and Biogeography

Global Ecology and Biogeography is a monthly scientific publication that started in 1991 to focus on macroecology, a type of ecology. Macroecology is concerned with how organisms interact with their environment and how these interactions shape various aspects of their natural history, including geographic distribution. Macroecology contains essential elements of ecological biogeography. The journal can be accessed through the Wiley Online Library.

Macroecology is concerned with how organisms interact with their environment and how these interactions shape various aspects of their natural history, including geographic distribution

Biogeography - Key takeaways

  • Biogeography is a field of evolutionary biology and geography that looks at the geographic distribution of species over time.
  • Conservation biogeography is the newest form of biogeography, melding the fundamentals of biogeography with conservation concerns.
  • Ecological biogeography is concerned with the geographic distribution of species at present.
  • Historical biogeography is concerned with the historical distribution of species.
  • Studying biogeography allows us to understand better how and why species evolved into what they are today and how they may continue to evolve in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions about Biogeography

Biogeography is a field of evolutionary biology and geography that looks at the geographic distribution of species over time. It combines elements of both biology and geography.

Studying biogeography allows us to better understand how and why species evolved into what they are today and how they may continue to evolve in response to the current environment and projected future selective pressures. An example is jaguars in South America. In the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil and Bolivia, melanistic jaguars are either very rare or entirely absent, likely because the habitat is much more open and sparsely forested. In such a habitat, melanistic jaguars would be easily spotted by potential prey species, reducing the fitness of such individuals. In addition, melanistic jaguars would be far easier for human poachers to spot, further reducing fitness. However, in densely forested areas, such as the Amazon, the melanistic trait is beneficial and selected for. Having a melanistic coat renders the jaguar more challenging to spot in dense forests, increasing its chances of successful predation and reducing the chances of being hunted by humans.

Studying biogeography allows us to better understand how and why species evolved into what they are today and how they may continue to evolve in response to the current environment and projected future selective pressures. 

Biogeography looks at how the physical environment has and continues to shape the distribution of animal and plant species. The study is typically split into three different types: conservation biogeographyecological biogeography, and historical biogeography. Conservation biogeography looks at how the changes in species distribution over time may have affected or continue to affect their conservation status. Ecological biogeography is concerned with the geographic distribution of species at the present time. Historical biogeography, also referred to as paleobiogeography, is concerned with the historical distribution of species.

Biogeography is a field of evolutionary biology and geography that looks at the geographic distribution of species over time. It combines elements of both biology and geography. Biogeography looks at how the physical environment has and continues to shape the distribution of animal and plant species. Evolution, extinction, speciation, and dispersal all play significant roles in the study of biogeography.

Final Biogeography Quiz

Question

Biogeography is a field of evolutionary biology and geography that looks at the ____________ of species over time.

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Answer

Geographic distribution

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Question

What are the three types of biogeography?

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Answer

Conservation biogeography

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Question

What is the newest type of biogeography?

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Answer

Conservation biogeography

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Question

This type of biogeography looks at how the changes in species distribution over time may have affected or continue to affect their conservation status.

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Answer

Conservation biogeography

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Question

Which kind of biogeography is concerned with the geographic distribution of species at the present time.

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Answer

Ecological biogeography

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Question

Historical biogeography is also referred to as ____________.

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Answer

Paleobiogeography

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Question

The Wallace Line refers to the biogeographical boundary that separates the _____ and __________ biological regions.

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Answer

Asian; Australasian

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Question

What is the name of the previously exposed landmass that connected to the Asian mainland and contains Borneo, Sumatra and Java? 

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Answer

Sundaland

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Question

What are some examples of wildlife that are present on the western side of the Wallace Line, but not the eastern side?

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Answer

Tigers

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Question

On which side of the Wallace Line might you find kangaroos?

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Answer

Eastern

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Question

True or False: The eastern and western sides of the Wallace Line share NONE of the same wildlife.

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Answer

False

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Question

The saltwater crocodile's geographic distribution has greatly _______ over the past century.

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Answer

Decreased

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Question

Why are kangaroos found in both Australia and New Guinea?

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Answer

Because the two islands were once connected.

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Question

Why are melanistic jaguars more common in forested environments, as opposed to open wetland environments?

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Answer

Because the melanistic trait is selected for in densely forested habitat, but selected against in open wetland habitat.

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Question

Global Ecology and Biogeography is a monthly scientific publication that started in 1991 to focus on ____________.

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Answer

Macroecology

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