, Volume 149, Issue 3, pp 406–417

Latitudinal gradients in abundance, and the causes of rarity in the tropics: a test using Australian honeyeaters (Aves: Meliphagidae)


    • School of Tropical BiologyJames Cook University
    • Department of ZoologyUniversity of Melbourne
  • Les Christidis
    • Australian Museum
  • Christopher N. Johnson
    • School of Tropical BiologyJames Cook University
Population Ecology

DOI: 10.1007/s00442-006-0456-6

Cite this article as:
Symonds, M.R.E., Christidis, L. & Johnson, C.N. Oecologia (2006) 149: 406. doi:10.1007/s00442-006-0456-6


Several studies have uncovered interspecific latitudinal gradients in abundance (population density) such that tropical species tend to be, on average, less abundant than species at higher latitudes. The causes of this relationship remain poorly studied, in contrast to the relative wealth of literature examining the relationship to latitude of other variables such as range size and body mass. We used a cross-species phylogenetic comparative approach and a spatial approach to examine three potential determining factors (distribution, reproductive output and climate) that might explain why abundance correlates with latitude, using data from 54 species of honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) in woodland environments in eastern Australia. There is a strong positive correlation between mean abundance and latitude in these birds. Reproductive output (clutch size) was positively linked to both abundance and latitude, but partial correlation analysis revealed that clutch size is not related to abundance once the effects of latitude are removed. A subsequent multiple regression model that also considered range size, clutch size and body mass showed that latitude is the only strong predictor of abundance in honeyeaters. In the separate spatial analysis, the climatic variables that we considered (temperature, rainfall and seasonality) were all strongly linked to latitude, but none served as a better predictor of abundance than latitude per se, either individually or collectively. The most intriguing result of our analyses was that the cross-species latitudinal pattern in abundance was not evident within species. This suggests an intrinsic cause of the pattern of ‘rarity in the tropics’ in Australian honeyeaters. We suggest that evolutionary age may provide a key to understanding patterns of abundance in these birds.


BirdsClimateEvolutionary ageLatitudePopulation density

Supplementary material

442_2006_456_MOESM1_ESM.doc (34 kb)
Supplementary material

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© Springer-Verlag 2006