Tropical rain forests are more biologically diverse than any other biome, lying at the extreme of a latitudinal diversity gradient that extends from the poles to the tropics. High species diversity in tropical forests is perhaps most impressively illustrated by the results of surveys of insects obtained using canopy fogging with broad-spectrum insecticides.
A landmark study by Terry Erwin sampled the canopy of a single Luehea seemannii tree in Panama, finding 163 species of beetles (Coleoptera) co-occurring in this one tree. Through a series of extrapolations (based on estimates of the total number of world tree species and the proportion of insect species comprised of beetles), Erwin estimated that there may be 30 million species of insects occurring in the tropical forests of the world. This figure implies that 495% of the earth’s species remain to be described.
While more recent sampling efforts have tended to yield lower estimates of tropical insect diversity, there are conservatively between 5 and 10 million species. This quantity is 5-to 10-fold greater than all species described to date. Thus, while tropical forests occupy only 7% of the earth’s land surface they are thought to contain over half of all of the species on the planet. The idea that species diversity of tropical animals (which are mostly insects) is a simple function of the number of plant species also implies that any effort to explain tropical diversity in general must, first and foremost, address the problem of the origin and maintenance of plant diversity.