Geographic gradients in species richness, including latitudinal gradients, can arise from geographic variation in any of three mechanisms: the geologic age of habitats, net rates of evolutionary diversification, or rates of sympatry among diversifying lineages. Here we show that variation in rates of sympatry is a dominant force structuring geographic richness gradients in birds. Species-rich sites contain disproportionately high numbers of recently diverged sympatric species but contain lineages with slower-than-average diversification rates. The positive sympatry-diversity relationship consistently overwhelms the negative diversification-diversity relationship, particularly among high-diversity sites (>250 species). These patterns repeat across biomes and continents with striking regularity, and remain consistent across multiple timescales, including the recent evolutionary past. Biogeographic and evolutionary patterns in birds are consistent with a role for ecological conditions in promoting species coexistence, which allows sister species to co-occur and potentially lowers extinction rates.
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