Why are there so few fish in the sea?

Greta Carrete Vega, John J. Wiens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

129 Scopus citations


The most dramatic gradient in global biodiversity is between marine and terrestrial environments. Terrestrial environments contain approximately 75–85% of all estimated species, but occupy only 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface (and only approx. 1–10% by volume), whereas marine environments occupy a larger area and volume, but have a smaller fraction of Earth’s estimated diversity. Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain this disparity, but there have been few large-scale quantitative tests. Here, we analyse patterns of diversity in actinopterygian (ray-finned) fishes, the most species-rich clade of marine vertebrates, containing 96 per cent of fish species. Despite the much greater area and productivity of marine environments, actinopterygian richness is similar in freshwater and marine habitats (15 150 versus 14 740 species). Net diversification rates (speciation–extinction) are similar in predominantly freshwater and saltwater clades. Both habitats are dominated by two hyperdiverse but relatively recent clades (Ostariophysi and Percomorpha). Remarkably, trait reconstructions (for both living and fossil taxa) suggest that all extant marine actinopterygians were derived from a freshwater ancestor, indicating a role for ancient extinction in explaining low marine richness. Finally, by analysing an entirely aquatic group, we are able to better sort among potential hypotheses for explaining the paradoxically low diversity of marine environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2323-2329
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1737
StatePublished - Jun 22 2012


  • Biodiversity
  • Evolution
  • Fish
  • Freshwater
  • Marine
  • Richness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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