Toward resolving Darwin's 'abominable mystery'

September 16, 2010, University of Calgary
Dr. Jana Vamosi is a member of University of Calgary's Department of Biological Sciences. Credit: Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

What, in nature, drives the incredible diversity of flowers? This question has sparked debate since Darwin described flower diversification as an 'abominable mystery.' The answer has become a lot clearer, according to scientists at the University of Calgary whose research on the subject is published today in the on-line edition of the journal Ecology Letters.

Drs. Jana Vamosi and Steven Vamosi of the Department of have found through extensive statistical analysis that the size of the geographical area is the most important factor when it comes to biodiversity of a particular flowering plant family.

The researchers were looking at the underlying forces at work spurring diversity -- such as why there could be 22,000 varieties of some families of flowers, orchids for example, while there could be only forty species of others, like the buffaloberry family. In other words, what factors have produced today's biodiversity?

"Our research found that the most important factor is available area. The number of species in a lineage is most keenly determined by the size of the continent (or continents) that it occupies," says Jana Vamosi.

Steven Vamosi adds that while the findings of this research mostly shed light on what produces the world's diversity, it may comment on what produces extinction patterns as well.

"The next step is to determine if patterns of extinction risk mirror those observed for , specifically to contrast the relative influence of available area and traits," he says.

Typically, when it comes to explaining the biodiversity of , biologists' opinions fall into three different camps: family traits (for example a showy flower versus a plain flower), environment (tropic versus arid climate) or sheer luck in geography (a seed makes it way to a new continent and expands the geographical range of a family).

But the Vamosi research demonstrates that geography isn't the only answer, traits of the family came in a close second to geography. Traits that may encourage greater diversity are known as "key innovations" and scientists have hypothesized that some families possess more species because they are herbs, possess fleshy fruits (such as an apple or peach), or that their flowers have a more complex morphology. Zygomorphy (or when a flower can only be divided down the middle to make two equal mirror images) is thought to restrict the types of pollinators that can take nectar and pollen from the flower. Flies, for instance, won't often visit zygomorphic . Bees, on the other hand, adore them.

"Although geography may play a primary role, a close second is the flower morphology of the plants in a particular family," says Jana Vamosi. "So essentially all camps may claim partial victory because morphological traits should be considered in the context of geographical area."

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1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 16, 2010
Well, seems to make sense at the genetic level. The greater the geographic area, the greater the variability in mineral content, water availability, sunshine and other factors. So one would expect there to be a greater multitude of genetic responses to the different combinations of environmental pressures.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 16, 2010
Duh. Plants live in a 2 dimensional world when it comes to reproduction. Isolation is more likely, leading to more diversity. So, of course that factor comes in first. Close second would have to be the morphology of the plant. Short of modeling all these parameters, why is this news ?
1 / 5 (1) Sep 16, 2010
The terms "determining" and "factor" seem like needless waving of arms, no? Is not the appropriate term "correlate"?
2 / 5 (3) Sep 16, 2010
Sorry but I am from Edmonton, and I cannot take anything that a Calgarian says as truth.
Sep 16, 2010
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not rated yet Sep 16, 2010
The peanut gallery is out in full force on this one! Other than kevintrs, the rest of the commentators may as well have just stayed in bed. @jdbertron: Many such insights appear to be obvious only *after* the fact. The article got into a leading journal with an IF > 10.0, and this "obvious" answer has eluded prominent scientists, including Darwin, for ~150 years. @hylozoic: No, the appropriate term is not necessarily "correlate" and, don't forget, many of the quotes attributed to researchers are created by the journalists interviewing them. @Kingsix: Um... wtf? @EdMoore: There are simply no words...

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