Why do so many species occur in mountains? A popular but little-tested hypothesis is that tectonic uplift creates environmental conditions (new habitats, dispersal barriers, etc.) that increase the rate at which resident species divide and evolve to form new ones. In China’s Hengduan Mountains region, a biodiversity hotspot uplifted over the last 8 million years, this rate does in fact show a significant increase during that time, relative to the rate for adjacent older mountains, and to the rate of species immigration. The Hengduan Mountains flora is thus made up disproportionately of species that evolved within the region during its uplift, supporting the original hypothesis and helping to explain the prevalence of mountains as global biodiversity hotspots.
A common hypothesis for the rich biodiversity found in mountains is uplift-driven diversification—that orogeny creates conditions favoring rapid in situ speciation of resident lineages. We tested this hypothesis in the context of the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau (QTP) and adjoining mountain ranges, using the phylogenetic and geographic histories of multiple groups of plants to infer the tempo (rate) and mode (colonization versus in situ diversification) of biotic assembly through time and across regions. We focused on the Hengduan Mountains region, which in comparison with the QTP and Himalayas was uplifted more recently (since the late Miocene) and is smaller in area and richer in species. Time-calibrated phylogenetic analyses show that about 8 million y ago the rate of in situ diversification increased in the Hengduan Mountains, significantly exceeding that in the geologically older QTP and Himalayas. By contrast, in the QTP and Himalayas during the same period the rate of in situ diversification remained relatively flat, with colonization dominating lineage accumulation. The Hengduan Mountains flora was thus assembled disproportionately by recent in situ diversification, temporally congruent with independent estimates of orogeny. This study shows quantitative evidence for uplift-driven diversification in this region, and more generally, tests the hypothesis by comparing the rate and mode of biotic assembly jointly across time and space. It thus complements the more prevalent method of examining endemic radiations individually and could be used as a template to augment such studies in other biodiversity hotspots.