Letter | Published:

The global diversity of birds in space and time

Nature volume 491, pages 444448 (15 November 2012) | Download Citation


Current global patterns of biodiversity result from processes that operate over both space and time and thus require an integrated macroecological and macroevolutionary perspective1,2,3,4. Molecular time trees have advanced our understanding of the tempo and mode of diversification5,6,7 and have identified remarkable adaptive radiations across the tree of life8,9,10. However, incomplete joint phylogenetic and geographic sampling has limited broad-scale inference. Thus, the relative prevalence of rapid radiations and the importance of their geographic settings in shaping global biodiversity patterns remain unclear. Here we present, analyse and map the first complete dated phylogeny of all 9,993 extant species of birds, a widely studied group showing many unique adaptations. We find that birds have undergone a strong increase in diversification rate from about 50 million years ago to the near present. This acceleration is due to a number of significant rate increases, both within songbirds and within other young and mostly temperate radiations including the waterfowl, gulls and woodpeckers. Importantly, species characterized with very high past diversification rates are interspersed throughout the avian tree and across geographic space. Geographically, the major differences in diversification rates are hemispheric rather than latitudinal, with bird assemblages in Asia, North America and southern South America containing a disproportionate number of species from recent rapid radiations. The contribution of rapidly radiating lineages to both temporal diversification dynamics and spatial distributions of species diversity illustrates the benefits of an inclusive geographical and taxonomical perspective. Overall, whereas constituent clades may exhibit slowdowns10,11, the adaptive zone into which modern birds have diversified since the Cretaceous may still offer opportunities for diversification.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    et al. Evolution and the latitudinal diversity gradient: speciation, extinction and biogeography. Ecol. Lett. 10, 315–331 (2007)

  2. 2.

    A comprehensive framework for global patterns in biodiversity. Ecol. Lett. 7, 1–15 (2004)

  3. 3.

    Plant species radiations: where, when, why? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 363, 3097–3105 (2008)

  4. 4.

    & Global gradients in vertebrate diversity predicted by historical area-productivity dynamics and contemporary environment. PLoS Biol. 10, e1001292 (2012)

  5. 5.

    et al. Nine exceptional radiations plus high turnover explain species diversity in jawed vertebrates. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 13410–13414 (2009)

  6. 6.

    , , & Understanding angiosperm diversification using small and large phylogenetic trees. Am. J. Bot. 98, 404–414 (2011)

  7. 7.

    et al. Global patterns of diversification in the history of modern amphibians. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 887–892 (2007)

  8. 8.

    , & Tempo and mode of evolution revealed from molecular phylogenies. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 89, 8322–8326 (1992)

  9. 9.

    & Density-dependent cladogenesis in birds. PLoS Biol. 6, e71 (2008)

  10. 10.

    & Density-dependent diversification in North American wood warblers. Proc. R. Soc. B 275, 2363–2371 (2008)

  11. 11.

    Divergent timing and patterns of species accumulation in lowland and highland neotropical birds. Evolution 60, 842–855 (2006)

  12. 12.

    & Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study in Molecular Evolution (Yale Univ. Press, 1990)

  13. 13.

    Global variation in the diversification rate of passerine birds. Ecology 87, 2468–2478 (2006)

  14. 14.

    , & Testing for latitudinal bias in diversification rates: an example using New World birds. Ecology 86, 2278–2287 (2005)

  15. 15.

    & The latitudinal gradient in recent speciation and extinction rates of birds and mammals. Science 315, 1574–1576 (2007)

  16. 16.

    , , , & The imprint of history on communities of North American and Asian warblers. Am. Nat. 156, 354–367 (2000)

  17. 17.

    & How and Why Species Multiply: the Radiation of Darwin’s Finches (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011)

  18. 18.

    , , & Explosive Pleistocene diversification and hemispheric expansion of a “great speciator”. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 1863–1868 (2009)

  19. 19.

    The Major Features of Evolution (Columbia Univ. Press, 1953)

  20. 20.

    et al. Diversity-dependence brings molecular phylogenies closer to agreement with the fossil record. Proc. R. Soc. B 279, 1300–1309 (2012)

  21. 21.

    , & Reconciling molecular phylogenies with the fossil record. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 16327–16332 (2011)

  22. 22.

    , , & Interplay between changing climate and species’ ecology drives macroevolutionary dynamics. Science 332, 349–351 (2011)

  23. 23.

    et al. Large-scale continental radiation: the neotropical ovenbirds and woodcreepers (Aves: Furnariidae). Evolution 65, 2973–2986 (2011)

  24. 24.

    Evolution of terrestrial birds in three continents: biogeography and parallel radiations. J. Biogeogr. 39, 813–824 (2012)

  25. 25.

    Speciation in Birds (Roberts, 2008)

  26. 26.

    & Slowdowns in diversification rates from real phylogenies may not be real. Syst. Biol. 59, 458–464 (2010)

  27. 27.

    et al. A phylogenomic study of birds reveals their evolutionary history. Science 320, 1763–1768 (2008)

  28. 28.

    LASER: a maximum likelihood toolkit for detecting temporal shifts in diversification rates from molecular phylogenies. Evol. Bioinform. Online 2, 247–250 (2006)

  29. 29.

    Mammalian phylogeny reveals recent diversification rate shifts. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 6187–6192 (2011)

  30. 30.

    & Incorporating evolutionary measures into conservation prioritization. Conserv. Biol. 20, 1670–1678 (2006)

Download references


We thank D. Redding for critical input in the early stages of this project; A. Mimoto, F. Ronqvist and M. Teslenko for help modifying MrBayes; I. Martyn for coding; R. Bowie, J. McGuire, A. Cooper, K. Burns and M. Sorenson among others, for unpublished phylogenetic material or information; M. Benton, T. Ezard, T. Price, M. Donoghue, J. Beaulieu, J. Belmaker, P. M. Hull, D. Field, N. Longrich, V. Saranathan, M. Steel, H. Morlon, J. Brown, A. Phillimore, R. Fitzjohn, R. Etienne, W. Stein and especially T. Stadler for data, important input and/or discussion; G. Smith, C. Schank, D. Thiele, T. M. Lee, F. La Sorte, C. Edwards, K. Ashton and J. Hazelhurst for help with spatial and phylogenetic data collection and management; C. Schank for help preparing the tree visualizations. This work was carried out using the BlueFern Supercomputing Facilities (http://www.bluefern.canterbury.ac.nz), University of Canterbury, the Advanced Computing Research Centre, University of Bristol (http://www.bris.ac.uk/acrc/) and the Interdisciplinary Research in Mathematics and Computer Sciences Centre, Simon Fraser University (http://www.irmacs.sfu.ca). This work was partly supported by NSF grants DBI 0960550 and DEB 1026764 and NASA Biodiversity Grant NNX11AP72G (W.J.); the Natural Environment Research Council (Postdoctoral Fellowship grant number NE/G012938/1 and the NERC Centre for Population Biology) (G.H.T.); and NSERC Canada, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the Yale Institute for Biospheric Sciences and Simon Fraser University (A.O.M.). Most importantly, we thank the many avian systematists and phylogeneticists who have contributed their data to public databases and so made our study possible.

Author information

Author notes

    • W. Jetz
    • , G. H. Thomas
    •  & J. B. Joy

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, 165 Prospect Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8106, USA

    • W. Jetz
  2. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • G. H. Thomas
  3. Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada

    • J. B. Joy
    •  & A. O. Mooers
  4. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 49, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

    • K. Hartmann


  1. Search for W. Jetz in:

  2. Search for G. H. Thomas in:

  3. Search for J. B. Joy in:

  4. Search for K. Hartmann in:

  5. Search for A. O. Mooers in:


W.J., A.O.M., and G.H.T. conceived of the study; K.H., W.J., J.B.J., A.O.M. and G.H.T. developed the methods; W.J., J.B.J. and G.H.T. collected the data; W.J., J.B.J. and G.H.T. conducted the analyses; W.J., J.B.J., A.O.M. and G.H.T. wrote the paper. W.J., J.B.J, G.H.T. and A.O.M. contributed equally to the study.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to W. Jetz or A. O. Mooers.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file comprises 1) Supplementary Methods, which include Figures 1-5 and Tables 1-3; 2) a Supplementary Discussion, which includes Figures 1-7 and Table 1; 3) an Inventory of the zipped Supplementary Data Files (see separate file); and 4) Supplementary References.

Zip files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    This zipped file contains the Supplementary Data files - see Supplementary Information file (pg 32) for details.

About this article

Publication history






Rights and permissions

To obtain permission to re-use content from this article visit RightsLink.


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.