BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo



Biogeography is the study of the distribution of species and ecosystems in geographic space and through geological time. Organisms and biological communities often vary in a regular fashion along geographic gradients of latitude, elevation, isolation and habitat area. Phytogeography is the branch of biogeography that studies the distribution of plants. Zoogeography is the branch that studies distribution of animals.

Modern biogeographic research combines information and ideas from many fields, from the physiological and ecological constraints on organismal dispersal to geological and climatological phenomena operating at global spatial scales and evolutionary time frames.

The patterns of species distribution across geographical areas can usually be explained through a combination of historical factors such as: speciation, extinction, continental drift, and glaciation. Through observing the geographic distribution of species, we can see associated variations in sea level, river routes, habitat, and river capture. Additionally, this science considers the geographic constraints of landmass areas and isolation, as well as the available ecosystem energy supplies.

Biogeography is most keenly observed on the world's islands. These habitats are often much more manageable areas of study because they are more condensed than larger ecosystems on the mainland. Islands are also ideal locations because they allow scientists to look at habitats that new invasive species have only recently colonized and can observe how they disperse throughout the island and change it. They can then apply their understanding to similar but more complex mainland habitats. Islands are very diverse in their biomes, ranging from the tropical to arctic climates. This diversity in habitat allows for a wide range of species study in different parts of the world.

The first discoveries that contributed to the development of biogeography as a science began in the mid-18th century, as Europeans explored the world and described the biodiversity of life. During the 18th century most views on the world were shaped around religion and for many natural theologists, the bible. Carl Linnaeus, in the mid-18th century, initiated the ways to classify organisms through his exploration of undiscovered territories. When he noticed that species were not as perpetual as he believed, he developed the Mountain Explanation to explain the distribution of biodiversity; when Noah's ark landed on Mount Ararat and the waters receded, the animals dispersed throughout different elevations on the mountain. This showed different species in different climates proving species were not constant. Linnaeus' findings set a basis for ecological biogeography. Through his strong beliefs in Christianity, he was inspired to classify the living world, which then gave way to additional accounts of secular views on geographical distribution. He argued that the structure of an animal was very closely related to its physical surroundings. This was important to a George Louis Buffon's rival theory of distribution.

Following this period of exploration came the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, which attempted to explain the patterns of biodiversity observed by Buffon and Linnaeus. At the end of the 18th century, Alexander von Humboldt, known as the "founder of plant geography", developed the concept of physique generale to demonstrate the unity of science and how species fit together. As one of the first to contribute empirical data to the science of biogeography through his travel as an explorer, he observed differences in climate and vegetation. The earth was divided into regions which he defined as tropical, temperate, and arctic and within these regions there were similar forms of vegetation. This ultimately enabled him to create the isotherm, which allowed scientists to see patterns of life within different climates. He contributed his observations to findings of botanical geography by previous scientists, and sketched this description of both the biotic and abiotic features of the earth in his book, Cosmos.

In the 19th century, several additional scientists contributed new theories to further develop the concept of biogeography. Charles Lyell, being one of the first contributors in the 19th century, developed the Theory of Uniformitarianism after studying fossils. This theory explained how the world was not created by one sole catastrophic event, but instead from numerous creation events and locations. Uniformitarianism also introduced the idea that the Earth was actually significantly older than was previously accepted. Using this knowledge, Lyell concluded that it was possible for species to go extinct. Since he noted that earth's climate changes, he realized that species distribution must also change accordingly. Lyell argued that climate changes complemented vegetation changes, thus connecting the environmental surroundings to varying species. This largely influenced Charles Darwin in his development of the theory of evolution.

Moving on to the 20th century, Alfred Wegener introduced the Theory of Continental Drift in 1912, though it was not widely accepted until the 1960s. This theory was revolutionary because it changed the way that everyone thought about species and their distribution around the globe. The theory explained how continents were formerly joined together in one large landmass, Pangea, and slowly drifted apart due to the movement of the plates below Earth's surface. The evidence for this theory is in the geological similarities between varying locations around the globe, fossil comparisons from different continents, and the jigsaw puzzle shape of the landmasses on Earth. Though Wegener did not know the mechanism of this concept of Continental Drift, this contribution to the study of biogeography was significant in the way that it shed light on the importance of environmental and geographic similarities or differences as a result of climate and other pressures on the planet. Importantly, late in his career Wegener recognised that testing his theory required measurement of continental movement rather than inference from fossils species distributions.

Classic biogeography has been expanded by the development of molecular systematics, creating a new discipline known as phylogeography. This development allowed scientists to test theories about the origin and dispersal of populations, such as island endemics. For example, while classic biogeographers were able to speculate about the origins of species in the Hawaiian Islands, phylogeography allows them to test theories of relatedness between these populations and putative source populations in Asia and North America.

Paleobiogeography also helps constrain hypotheses on the timing of biogeographic events such as vicariance and geodispersal, and provides unique information on the formation of regional biotas. For example, data from species-level phylogenetic and biogeographic studies tell us that the Amazonian fish fauna accumulated in increments over a period of tens of millions of years, principally by means of allopatric speciation, and in an arena extending over most of the area of tropical South America (Albert & Reis 2011). In other words, unlike some of the well-known insular faunas (Galapagos finches, Hawaiian drosophilid flies, African rift lake cichlids), the species-rich Amazonian ichthyofauna is not the result of recent adaptive radiations.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782