An Inordinate Fondness for Eukaryotic Diversity
Why do some groups of organisms, like beetles, have so many species, and others, like the tuataras, so few? This classic question in evolutionary biology has a deep history and has been studied using both fossils and phylogenetic trees. Phylogeny-based studies have focused on tree balance, which compares the number of species across clades of the same age in the tree. These studies have suggested that rates of speciation and extinction vary tremendously across the tree of life. In this issue, Rabosky et al. report the most ambitious study to date on the differences in species diversity across clades in the tree of life. The authors bring together a tremendously large dataset of multicellular eukaryotes, including all living species of plants, animals, and fungi; they divide these organisms into 1,397 clades, accounting for more than 1.2 million species in total. Rabosky et al. find tremendous variation in diversity across the tree of life. There are old clades with few species, young clades with many species, and everything in between. They also note a peculiar aspect of their data: it is difficult or impossible to predict how many species will be found in a particular clade knowing how long a clade has been diversifying from a common ancestor. This pattern suggests complex dynamics of speciation and extinction in the history of eukaryotes. Rabosky et al.'s paper represents the latest development in our efforts to understand the Earth's biodiversity at the broadest scales.