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The diversification rate hypothesis (DRH) proposes that spatial patterns of species richness result from spatial variation in net diversification rates. We developed an approach using a time-calibrated phylogeny and distributional data to estimate the maximum explanatory power of the DRH, over a given time period, to current species richness in an area. We used this approach to study species richness patterns of a large family of suboscine birds across South America. The maximum explanatory power of the DRH increased with the duration of the time period considered and grain size; it ranged from 13-37 fold local increases in species richness for T = 33 Ma to less than 2-fold increases for T equal to or less than 10 Ma. For large grain sizes (equal to or greater than 8 x 8 degrees) diversification rate over the last 10 Ma could account for all the spatial variance in species richness, but for smaller grain sizes commonly used in biogeographical studies (1 x 1 degrees), it could only explain less than 16% of this variance. Thus, diversification since the Late Miocene, often thought to be a major determinant of Neotropical diversity, had a limited imprint on spatial richness patterns at small grain sizes. Further application of our approach will help determine the role of the DRH in explaining current spatial patterns of species richness.
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