Why are there so many coexisting species of lizards in Australian deserts?

Craig D. James*, Richard Shine

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)


Because Australian skinks of the genus Ctenotus display very high local species richness in arid-zone spinifex grasslands but not in mesic habitats, these lizards have been used as 'model organisms' to ask why ecologically similar taxa coexist under some circumstances but not others. Previous work has involved detailed studies within small areas, and has looked for differences in ecological processes between arid versus mesic habitats. We suggest a radically different explanation for the high species-richness of arid-zone Ctenotus, by shifting attention to a larger spatial scale: the regional species pool. Analyses of the geographic distributions of Ctenotus species confirm that more species coexist at sites in the arid-zone (mean =9.3 species per site) than in other climatic zones (means 2.4-7.6). However, the total number of species occurring within the arid-zone is actually lower, per km2 of habitat, than is the case in some other climatic zones. That is, arid-zone Ctenotus show a higher local (alpha) species diversity, but a lower regional (gamma) diversity, than their mesic-habitat congeners. This apparent paradox occurs because most arid-zone species occur over vast areas (mean =1,035,000 km2), whereas congeners from other climatic zones have smaller geographic ranges (200-373,000 km2). The broad distributions of arid-zone taxa reflect the great spatial homogeneity in climatic conditions in this zone. That is, the 'climate spaces' occupied are similar for Ctenotus species from all bioclimatic regions. Thus, a given amount of climatic space translates into a larger geographic distribution (and hence, more sympatry) in the arid-zone than in other areas. In summary, the high number of coexisting Ctenotus species in arid-zone habitats may simply reflect the facts that the arid zone is large (so that many species have evolved therein) and climatically homogeneous (so that any species evolving in that habitat type can disperse very widely, and thus overlap with many other species). Our approach explains much of the variance in local-assemblage species richness from regional to site scales; but explanations invoking biological attributes of the species concerned, the nature of their interactions with other species or with particular resources (such as prey or shelter) may still be significant at microhabitat scales. For lizard communities in Australia, species richness at a site may be determined more by continental biogeography rather than by ecological interactions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-141
Number of pages15
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Biogeography
  • Climate volume
  • Lizards
  • Regional diversity
  • Sympatry


Dive into the research topics of 'Why are there so many coexisting species of lizards in Australian deserts?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this