What explains patterns of diversification and richness among animal phyla?

Tereza Jezkova, John J. Wiens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Animal phyla vary dramatically in species richness (from one species to 11.2 million), but the causes of this variation remain largely unknown. Animals have also evolved striking variation in morphology and ecology, including sessile marine taxa lacking heads, eyes, limbs, and complex organs (e.g., sponges), parasitic worms (e.g., nematodes, platyhelminths), and taxa with eyes, skeletons, limbs, and complex organs that dominate terrestrial ecosystems (arthropods, chordates). Relating this remarkable variation in traits to the diversification and richness of animal phyla is a fundamental yet unresolved problem in biology. Here, we test the impacts of 18 traits (including morphology, ecology, reproduction, and development) on diversification and richness of extant animal phyla. Using phylogenetic multiple regression, the best-fitting model includes five traits that explain ∼74% of the variation in diversification rates (dioecy, parasitism, eyes/photoreceptors, a skeleton, nonmarine habitat). However, a model including just three (skeleton, parasitism, habitat) explains nearly asmuch variation (∼67%). Diversification rates then largely explain richness patterns. Our results also identify many striking traits that have surprisingly little impact on diversification (e.g., head, limbs, and complex circulatory and digestive systems). Overall, our results reveal the key factors that shape large-scale patterns of diversification and richness across 180% of all extant, described species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)201-212
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2017


  • Animals
  • Diversification
  • Habitat
  • Morphology
  • Parasitism
  • Species richness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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