New species of plants evolving 3 times faster in biodiversity hotspots

December 23rd, 2008 - 1:12 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Dec 23 (ANI): A new research has determined that new species of flowering plants called proteas are exploding onto the scene three times faster in parts of Australia and South Africa than anywhere else in the world, creating exceptional hotspots of species richness.

The international team behind the study created an evolutionary family tree of all 2,000 protea plant species on Earth, the majority of which are found in South Western Australia (SWA) and the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) of South Africa.

This family tree enabled the researchers to examine how these and other regions of the planet with Mediterranean-style climates have become so-called biodiversity hotspots.

Until now, scientists have not known exactly why such large numbers of plant and animal species live in these Mediterranean hotspots.

They are places of significant conservational importance, which, like the rainforests, contain some of the richest and most threatened communities of plant and animal life on Earth.

The new research provides the first conclusive proof that plant species in two of these hotspots are evolving approximately three times faster than elsewhere on the planet.

The study dates this surge in protea speciation as occurring in the last 10-20 million years, following a period of climate change during which SWA and the CFR became hotter, drier, and more prone to vegetation fires.

According to Dr Vincent Savolainen, a biologist based at Imperial College London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, one of the authors of the new study, Something special is happening in these regions: new species of proteas are appearing notably faster than elsewhere, and we suspect this could be the same case with other plant species too.

This study proves that the abundance of different kinds of proteas in these two areas isnt simply due to normal rates of species diversification occurring over a long period of time, he added.

Dr Savolainen and his colleagues believe that climatic changes millions of years ago could be one of the factors that prompted the protea plants hyperdiversification in SWA and the CFR.

As these two regions became hotter, dryer, and prone to seasonal fires, proteas which are drought-resistant and able to re-grow easily after a fire would have survived, thrived and diversified into new species when faced with less competition for resources from less hardy plants.

This is the first step towards understanding why some parts of the planet with a Mediterranean-style climate have become species-rich biodiversity hotspots, he further added. (ANI)

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