A taxa–area relationship for bacteria

Article metrics


A positive power-law relationship between the number of species in an area and the size of that area has been observed repeatedly in plant and animal communities1. This species–area relationship, thought to be one of the few laws in ecology2, is fundamental to our understanding of the distribution of global biodiversity. However, such a relationship has not been reported for bacteria, and little is known regarding the spatial distribution of bacteria, relative to what is known of plants and animals3. Here we describe a taxa–area relationship for bacteria over a scale of centimetres to hundreds of metres in salt marsh sediments. We found that bacterial communities located close together were more similar in composition than communities located farther apart, and we used the decay of community similarity with distance to show that bacteria can exhibit a taxa–area relationship. This relationship was driven primarily by environmental heterogeneity rather than geographic distance or plant composition.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The taxa–area relationship for salt marsh organisms varied with taxonomic focus (a) and taxonomic resolution (b).
Figure 2: A comparison of z-values for both microbial and macrobial taxa in different ecosystems.


  1. 1

    Rosenzweig, M. L. Species Diversity in Space and Time 8–48, 190–284 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1995)

  2. 2

    Lawton, J. H. Are there general laws in ecology? Oikos 84, 177–192 (1999)

  3. 3

    Horner-Devine, M. C., Carney, K. M. & Bohannan, B. J. M. An ecological perspective on bacterial biodiversity. Proc. R. Soc. Biol. Sci. B 271, 113–122 (2004)

  4. 4

    Arrhenius, O. Species and area. J. Ecol. 9, 59–99 (1921)

  5. 5

    Gleason, H. A. On the relationship between species and area. Ecology 3, 158–162 (1922)

  6. 6

    Crawley, M. J. & Harral, J. E. Scale dependence in plant biodiversity. Science 291, 864–868 (2001)

  7. 7

    Losos, J. B. Analysis of an evolutionary species–area relationship. Nature 408, 847–850 (2000)

  8. 8

    Bennett, J. P. Nested taxa–area curves for eastern United States floras. Rhodora 99, 241–251 (1997)

  9. 9

    Harcourt, A. H. Biogeographic relationships of primates on South-East Asian islands. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 8, 55–61 (1999)

  10. 10

    Whitman, W. B., Coleman, D. C. & Wiebe, W. J. Prokaryotes: The unseen majority. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 95, 6578–6583 (1998)

  11. 11

    Baas-Becking, L. G. M. Geologie of Inleiding Tot de Milieukunde (W. P. Van Stockum & N. V. Zoon, The Hague, The Netherlands, 1934)

  12. 12

    Bertness, M. D. The Ecology of Atlantic Shorelines 313–376 (Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts, 1999)

  13. 13

    Tyson, G. W. et al. Community structure and metabolism through reconstruction of microbial genomes from the environment. Nature 428, 37–43 (2004)

  14. 14

    Harte, J., McCarthy, S., Taylor, K., Kinzig, A. & Fischer, M. L. Estimating species–area relationships from plot to landscape scale using species spatial-turnover data. Oikos 86, 45–54 (1999)

  15. 15

    Torsvik, V., Goksoyr, J. & Daae, F. L. High diversity in DNA of soil bacteria. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 56, 782–787 (1990)

  16. 16

    Stackebrandt, E. & Goebel, B. M. Taxonomic note: A place for DNA–DNA reassociation and 16S rRNA sequence analysis in the present species definition in bacteriology. Int. J. Syst. Bacteriol. 44, 846–849 (1994)

  17. 17

    Burke, D., Hamerlynck, E. & Hahn, D. Interactions among plant species and microorganisms in salt marsh sediments. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 68, 1157–1164 (2002)

  18. 18

    Rossello-Mora, R. & Amann, R. The species concept for prokayotes. FEMS Microbiol. Rev. 25, 39–67 (2001)

  19. 19

    Peitinger, M., Bergamini, A. & Schmid, B. Species–area relationships and nestedness of four taxonomic groups in fragmented wetlands. Basic Appl. Ecol. 4, 385–394 (2003)

  20. 20

    Whitaker, R. J., Grogan, D. W. & Taylor, J. W. Geographic barriers isolate endemic populations of hyperthermophilic archea. Science 301, 976–978 (2003)

  21. 21

    Roberts, M. S. & Cohan, F. M. Recombination and migration rates in natural-populations of Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus mojavensis. Evolution 49, 1081–1094 (1995)

  22. 22

    McCaig, A. E., Embley, T. M. & Prosser, J. I. Molecular analysis of enrichment cultures of marine ammonia oxidizers. FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 120, 363–367 (1994)

  23. 23

    Qiu, X. et al. Evaluation of PCR-generated chimeras, mutations, and heteroduplexes with 16S rRNA gene-based cloning. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 67, 880–887 (2001)

  24. 24

    Maidak, B. L. et al. The RDP-II (Ribosomal Database Project). Nucleic Acids Res. 29, 173–174 (2001)

  25. 25

    Ludwig, W. et al. ARB: a software environment for sequence data. Nucleic Acids Res. 32, 1363–1371 (2004)

  26. 26

    Schloss, P. D. & Handelsman, J. Introducing DOTUR, a computer program for defining operational taxonomic units and estimating species richness. 〈http://www.plantpath.wisc.edu/fac/joh/dotur.htmlAppl. Environ. Microbiol. (in the press)

  27. 27

    Magurran, A. E. Measuring Biological Diversity 175–176 (Blackwell, 2004)

  28. 28

    Clarke, K. R. & Warwick, R. M. Change in Marine Communities: an Approach to Statistical Analysis and Interpretation 2.3, 11.8–11.11 (PRIMER-E, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, 2001)

  29. 29

    Legendre, P. & Legendre, L. Numerical Ecology 33–47 (Elsevier Science B. V., Amsterdam, 1998)

Download references


We are grateful to C. Anderson, H. P. Horz, A. Martiny, S. Reddy, members of M. Bertness' laboratory at Brown University and K. Nusslein's laboratory at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for their technical assistance. We thank J. Green, D. Ackerly, P. Ehrlich, D. Relman and D. Petrov for comments on a previous draft of this manuscript. We also thank E. Bathgate, the American Association of University Women, and the National Science Foundation for their support.

Author information

Correspondence to M. Claire Horner-Devine.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information Methods 1

Describes sampling design and includes Supplementary Information Figure S1. (PDF 45 kb)

Supplementary Information Methods 2

Describes the statistical analyses in more detail. This includes Supplementary Information Figure S2, which shows the relationship between pairwise geographic distance between samples and similarity in community composition for bacteria considered at 99%, 97% and 95% similarity. (PDF 79 kb)

Supplementary Information Methods 3

This file describes how data included in Figure 2 were selected. (PDF 126 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading


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.