The paper “Climate, Niche Evolution, and Diversification of the “Bird‐Cage” Evening Primroses (Oenothera, Sections Anogra and Kleinia)” from the journal The American Naturalist (2009) uses the relatively new technique of combining niche models and dated phylogenies to make conclusions about the drivers of biodiversity. Integrating ecological niche modeling into phylogenetics is a potentially powerful practice that could help us answer questions about the creation and sustaining of biodiversity. These questions are becoming increasingly important with large-scale anthropogenic disturbances to the environment including habitat destruction, landscape fragmentation and, of course, climate change threaten biodiversity globally.
While, “the use of niche models to address paleocli- matic explanations for diversification has only begun,” this paper seems to be one of many studies on the topic, and the jury is still out on what the actual drivers of biodiversity are, as the results of the papers are clearly at odds with each other. This paper does a good job of citing previous studies that have gotten results that are both similar and opposing. However, for the reader, it lessens the credibility of the study itself. Why is this study any different or more believable than the others? This study seeks to fragment the question by concluding that different clades are driven in different ways. Furthermore, it concludes that the study itself offers a new method upon which other studies can build: “ Here we have provided a method, beginning with climate and locality data, via ecological niche modeling, for reconstructing ancestral climatic tolerances that takes into account both the intraspecific variability of extant taxa and phylogenetic uncertainty.”
Integrating phylogenies and niche data to infer information about the drivers of diversity seems like a good idea that can help us answer essential questions. While this study seeks to find some answers to these big questions, it proves to be just another building block in our understanding and application of this new process. Perhaps the methods laid out in this paper will be useful in future studies to come up with more definitive answers, or perhaps they will add further support to differing findings on the subject.
I guess that is the nature of what we do. We set up studies to answer big important questions that, slowly (this is ideally speaking) can gain momentum until someone can place a capstone on top and society embraces a new theory. I just hope that we as a species can understand the drivers of biodiversity before we forever deplete it.