History of Biogeography- Development of Concept (Limnaaeus, Humboldt, Darwin, Wallace, Wegner, Heming, Brudin, Croizat)


It is the study of the distribution of species, organisms, and ecosystems in geographic space and through geological time.

Biogeography is the study of the large-scale or global pattern of distribution of species, including the history and causes of this distribution. For this activity, you will explore the history and cause behind the distribution of marsupials.

Biogeography studies the distribution of species, which suggests dispersal patterns and evolutionary history.

Example- Finches and other animals of Galapagos and other isolated islands, differences between species on either side of the Wallace line (Australasia and Asia)



The history of biogeography is as old as the appearance of small organisms on the surface of the earth including the terrestrial or marine environments. The work of palaeogeographers, palaeobotanists, palaeoecologists, and historical geomorphologists has played an important role in contributing to the basic subject matter of ancient biogeography. During ancient times the distribution of flora and fauna was not like as it is today. This part of historical biogeography dealt with the great mammoth, dinosaurs, and giant trees which lived on the surface of the earth nearly 200 million years ago.

The medieval period starts approximately from 4000 BC to the workers of the 16th century. 15th to 16th was called the early modern era in the medieval history of biogeography because in this period biogeography got its independent identities like that of chemistry, physics, and geography. The period from the 17th century to the present the date is called the period of the modern age (Chouhan, 2013).

The geographical voyages of discoveries in the 18th century paved the way for the rise of biogeography as a science in its own right. Biogeography as a subject started to receive much attention in the 19th century because one of the first modern delimitations of biogeographic regions was created in 1858 by the English ornithologist Philip L. Sclater, who based his division of the terrestrial world on the distributions of birds. In 1870, the biologist Adolf Engler devised a scheme based on plant distribution.

Darwin’s theory on the origin of species was largely based on the emerging biogeographic understanding of the era in which Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker a plant collector and systematist and Alfred Russel Wallace a zoogeographer greatly influenced Darwin. Darwin collected and pondered the biogeographical material that ultimately leads him to the concept of evolution by natural selection (Cox and Moore, 2006; Groves, 2016).

The next significant advancement in biogeography took place in 1915 when William Diller Matthew a geologist and paleontologist said that at any given time period, the most advance and progressive species of the race will be those inhabiting that region and the most primitive and unprogressive species will be those remote from this center. In 1920s and 1930s a new development took place which combined the rapidly evolving field of ecology with biogeography. In recent times a significant portion of the theoretical literature on biogeography has been devoted to arguments about the efficacy of vicarianism compared to dispersalism.

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

First, one who asked the central biogeographic question

How are organisms distributed around the world?

Also had a view of a dynamic and changing Earth

The pupil of Plato, took great interest in the natural world, including many aspects of meteorology and geography, but his greatest contribution to science was in the fields of natural history and biology.

Whilst earlier scholars made observations about flora and fauna, Aristotle was the first to use empirical methods and techniques in a proto-scientific method.

Aristotle wrote a number of treatises based on his study

  • The Parts of Animals
  • The History of Animals
  • The Movement of Animals
  • The Progression of Animals
  • On Sense and Sensible Objects
  • On Memory and Recollection
  • On Sleep and Waking
  • On Dreams
  • Of Prophecy in Sleep
  • On Length and Shortness of Life
  • On Youth and Old Age
  • On Life and Death
  • On Respiration
  • On Breath
  • On Plants
Carl Linnaeus (1707- 1778)

Species classification system (hierarchical, binomial)

Hypothesis to explain biodiversity distribution: Paradisical Mountain

Linnaeus also had ideas about biogeography. He thought that all life had originated on the slopes of a “Paradisical Mountain”, where they were adapted to a particular habitat on the slopes of the mountain.

They then dispersed to occupy the various habitats of the globe. He hypothesized a similar spread of organisms following the landing of Noah’s ark.

Linnaeus’ Paradisical Mountain Hypothesis

  • All species housed on slopes of equatorial mountain-island ~6000 years ago
  • Flood receded, continents expanded, and terrestrial species expanded to new sites.
  • In accordance with biblical events (Noah’s Ark, biblical timeline) and biblical beliefs (species do not change; later abandoned this idea)

Carl Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist, a scientist who studies plants. He was born in Sweden, where he taught at Uppsala University, and he spent much of his life collecting and naming plants and animals. Linnaeus came up with the modern method of classifying living things by grouping similar species together. He also gave each plant and animal a scientific name made up of two Latin words. To humans, for “wise man”. A scientific name shows how a lining thing fits into the natural world and which other species are its closest relatives. Scientists today still use Linnaeus’s system for classifying and naming living things.

The continents in the first ages of the world lay immersed under the sea, except for a single island in the midst of this immense ocean; where all animals lived commodiously, and vegetables were produced in the greatest luxuriance.

Image by wirestock on Freepik

His explanation (Center of Origin- Dispersal idea) was that Noah’s Ark had come to rest on Mount Ararat.

  • This tall mountain had many different elevational zones
  • Each immutable species was already adapted to a particular zone
  • Each species spreads out to its respective environment over the globe
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon ( 1707-1788)

Studied living and fossil mammals, and arrived at conclusions different from those of Linnaeus.

Hypothesized that life originated in a region of northwestern Europe during earlier times, then migrated into the New World and the Southern Hemisphere, changing over time.

  • Believed in a single species creation event
  • Recognized climatic shifts & their importance to understanding species spread
  • Critique of Linnaeus:
  • Different regions (even with the same environment) often had different species
  • If species were incapable of adaptation, they could not have traveled through hostile environmental barriers from a single

Life originated on northern landmasses (Center of Origin)

Life spread southward (Dispersal) as climates cooled

Adapting and “evolving” such that each area came to contain distinct

“Man is totally a product of heaven; But the animals, in many respects, are creatures of the Earth only. Those of one continent are not found in another; or, if there are a few exceptions, the animals are so changed that they are hardly recognized.”

Buffon’s view of the change (degeneration) of life forms with time, and his belief that New World life forms were somehow inferior was one factor that led Thomas Jefferson to commission the Lewis and Clark expedition to survey the western portions of the American continent.

Buffon’s observations led to the first principle of biogeography, known as Buffon’s Law. It states that environmentally similar but isolated regions have distinct assemblages of mammals and birds.

Buffon’s Law: distant regions with similar climate (& similar-appearing vegetation) have different animal species

  • Mediterranean climate – biome
  • Monsoonal climate – biome
  • Climate and Species are changeable

The naturalist de Buffon had two problems with Linnaeus’ view of the origin and spread of life.

  • He observed that different parts of the world, even those with similar conditions, were inhabited by distinct kinds of plants and animals.
  • He found it unlikely that all species would be able to disperse across inhospitable habitats (and there were many inhospitable barriers).
Buffon’s Hypothesis of Species Dispersal
  • Species originated around the north pole during a warm period
  • As the globe cooled, species migrated south
  • Species changed and adapted to new environments (“improved” or “degenerated”)
  • Species survived that were “improved”, and “degenerated” species died out
  • Importance of hypothesis:
  • Dynamic climate
  • Adaptation of species
  • Buffon’s Law – environmentally similar but isolated regions have distinct assemblages of mammals and birds (becomes the principle of biogeography)
Sir Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks was an eminent English naturalist, explorer and botanist, noted for his promotion of natural sciences. He also remains the longest-serving president of the Royal Society of London.


Sir Joseph Banks was born on February 13, 1743, in London, England, to William and Sarah Banks. From the time he was in school, Banks was interested in botany, the study of plants.

Accompanied Captain James Cook on a three-year voyage around the world from 1768 to 1771.

Collected ~3600 plant specimens, including over 1000 previously unknown to science.

Affirmed and generalized Buffon’s Law

Banks became the president of the Royal Society in 1777, where he remained until his death in 1820. He was known as a prominent endorser of travelers and scientific men. Many voyages of discovery were approved and carried out under his supervision. He was the first person to introduce the Western world to acacia, mimosa, eucalyptus, and Banksia, a genus named after him. About 80 other species of plants were also named after him.

He also established the fact that marsupial mammals were more primitive than placental mammals.

Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798)

Global biotic regions (plants)

Higher species diversity in tropics

Species diversity correlated with island size

Also circumnavigated the globe with Cook.

Developed one of the first systematic descriptions of the world’s biotic regions.

Also worked to extend Buffon’s Law to plants.

Noted the tendency for plant diversity to decrease from the equator to the poles.

Affirmed Buffon’s law for plants, mammals, birds

Recognized plant assemblages and relationships with specific climatic conditions.

Insights into patterns of species diversity

  • Habitat (island) size
  • Latitude of species diversity
Karl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812)

German botanists provided a major treatise on plant geography.

He described the floristic provinces of Europe and offered a novel interpretation of their origin as well as others in the southern hemisphere.

Suggested many sites of origin, perhaps mountains that were not inundated in the Great Flood. After the deluge, life spread from these multiple sites.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Father of phytogeography

Covariation of vegetation and climate

Invented isobar and isotherm

Plant Vegetation types strongly correlated with local climate

Expanded latitudinal biodiversity gradients into elevational gradients

Humboldt concluded that, within regions, plants were distributed in floristic belts ranging up the sides of tropical mountains.

Humboldt painstakingly described which plants were found at particular elevations on Mount Chimborazo, anticipating the field of plant ecology.

Humboldt encouraged his readers to think about big-picture biogeography over time. In Views, he wrote, “The unequal distribution of animals across the globe has had a profound impact upon a lot of peoples and their more or less rapid march toward civilization.”

Despite Willdenow’s foresight, Humboldt articulated the first vicariance argument…

“In order to come to a decision as to the existence in ancient times of a connection between neighboring continents, geology bases itself on the analogous structures of coastlines, on the similarity of animals inhabiting them and on ocean surroundings. Plant geography furnishes the most important material for this kind of research . . . it finds the separation of Africa and South American occurred before the development of living organisms” (von Humboldt and Bonpland, 1805)

“In order to solve the great problem as to the migration of plants, plant geography descends into the bowels of the earth: there it consults the ancient monuments which nature has left in the form of petrifications in the fossil wood and coal beds which constitute the burial places of the first vegetation of our planet” (von Humboldt and Bonpland, 1805)

By the turn of the 19th century, three sets of ideas now existed on organismal distributions:

1.“Center of Origin” from which species originate and disperse

2. Changes in earth history (vicariance) could explain present-day patterns

3. Ecological conditions control the regularities in distribution patterns

The 19th Century – A Golden Age for Biogeography

Age of Enlightenment

(The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was an intellectual and cultural movement in the eighteenth century that emphasized reason over superstition and science over blind faith.)

Agustin de Candolle (1778-1841)

Augustin de Candolle is considered one of the most important botanists of the nineteenth century. His major contributions were in the fields of plant classification and morphology, the study of form, and the geographical distribution of plants.


Species competition for resources is a key factor in species persistence

Factors other than island area influence biodiversity: isolation, climate, geological history, age

Candolle originated the idea of “Nature’s war”, which influenced Charles Darwin and the principle of natural selection. de Candolle recognized that multiple species may develop similar characteristics that did not appear in a common evolutionary ancestor; this was later termed analogy. During his work with plants, de Candolle noticed that plant leaf movements follow a near-24-hour cycle in constant light, suggesting that an internal biological clock exists. Though many scientists doubted de Candolle’s findings, experiments over a century later demonstrated that ″the internal biological clock″ indeed exists.

Candolle’s descendants continued his work on plant classification. Alphonse de Candolle and Casimir Pyrame de Candolle contributed to the Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis, a catalog of plants begun by Augustin Pyramus de Candolle.

Adolphe Brongniart (1801-1876)

Founder of Paleobotany

Paleobotanists of the 19th Century used the fossil record to draw inferences regarding ancient climates.

Found tropical fossils in temperate areas. Concluded that the earth’s surface had been altered by the uplift and erosion of mountains.

Adolphe Brongniart’s pioneering work on the relationships between extinct and existing plants has earned him the title of father of paleobotany. His major work on plant fossils was his Histoire des végétaux fossiles

Earth’s climate was highly mutable

Used the fossil record to infer past climates

Found fossils of organisms adapted to tropical climates in northern Europe

Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

Regarded as the father of geology.

Saw evidence of the dynamism of the earth’s surface.


Developed the theory of uniformitarianism, stating that the processes that we see operating today on the earth’s surface have always done so.

Climates changed through time and found fossils adapted to different habitats than the present

Documented changing sea levels and the lifting up and eroding of mountains

Recognized that the earth must be much older than just a few thousand years

Rejected the idea that species are also dynamic

Wrote Principles of Geology.

The stage was set for the contribution of four British naturalists.

Uniformitarianism physical processes now operating are timeless

  • Species go extinct!
  • Earth’s climate changes & so do species’ distributions
  • Multiple creation events & sites
  • Earth must be older than 6,000 yrs
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

General theory to explain the mutability of species came with Darwin and Wallace

Darwin responded to de Candolle’s “Origin of Species” problem by saying that the similarities of biotas in the southern hemisphere were not due to changes in the earth’s surface but due to inheritance:

Collected samples of rocks, plants, animals, fossils

Developed the theory of evolution by natural selection; The Origin of Species (1859)

Emphasized the importance of long-distance dispersal in the biogeographic distribution of species

Through a series of events, Darwin sailed as an amateur naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1831.

In his Origin of Species, Darwin devoted two chapters to biogeography and emphasized three points:

(1) barriers to migration allowed time for the slow process of modification through natural selection.

(2) the concept of single centers of creation was critical; that is, each species was first produced in a single area only, and from that center, it would proceed as far as its ability would permit.

(3) dispersal was a phenomenon of overall importance.

1831 – 5 year voyage on HMS Beagle to South America

During his five-year journey around the world on HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin encountered many different landscapes and an enormous variety of flora and fauna. Some of his most vivid experiences were on the islands on the coast of South America, including the now-famous Galapagos archipelago. Darwin was fascinated by the geographic relationship between the South American coast and its nearby islands; he was puzzled over why plants and animals on nearby islands were similar to those on the mainland. Darwin was not satisfied by the traditional explanation provided by many naturalists of his day (including the famous Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz), that each organism was specially created for its geographic location. After his return from the Beagle, he started to challenge the tenets of special creation theory. Eventually, Darwin suggested that species were transported from the mainland to the islands, where they continued to evolve.


Darwin’s voyage

The voyage had a tremendous influence on Darwin.

Darwin, in turn, had a tremendous influence on biogeograhy and biology in general.


Darwin explained the spread and eventual isolation of taxa as the result of long-distance dispersal.

His arguments threatened to overturn the “steady state” ideas that were
entrenched in biogeography.


Charles Darwin and the rest of the HMS Beagle crew spent only five weeks in the Galapagos Islands, but the research performed there and the species Darwin brought back to England was instrumental in the formation of a core part of the original theory of evolution and Darwin’s ideas on the natural selection which he published in his first book. Darwin studied the geology of the region along with giant tortoises that were indigenous to the area.


Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Lonesome George lived in the Galapagos, a chain of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador, in South America—islands that forever changed our understanding of the natural world. While visiting the Galapagos in 1835, British naturalist Charles Darwin observed local plants and animals. He became fascinated by species that seemed related to ones found on the mainland—but that also had many physical variations unique to different islands.

Over time, Darwin began to wonder if species from South America had reached the Galapagos and then changed as they adapted to new environments. This idea—that species could change over time—eventually led to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.


Galapagos Finches

Perhaps the best known of Darwin’s species he collected while on the Galapagos Islands were what are now called “Darwin’s Finches”. In reality, these birds are not really part of the finch family and are thought to probably actually be some sort of blackbird or mockingbird. However, Darwin was not very familiar with birds, so he killed and preserved the specimens to take back to England with him where he could collaborate with an ornithologist.

The HMS Beagle continued to sail on to as far away lands as New Zealand before returning to England in 1836. It was back in Europe when he enlisted the help of John Gould, a celebrated ornithologist in England. Gould was surprised to see the differences in the beaks of the birds and identified the 14 different specimens as actual different species – 12 of which were brand new species. He had not seen these species anywhere else before and concluded they were unique to the Galapagos Islands. The other, similar, birds Darwin had brought back from the South American mainland were much more common but different from the new Galapagos species.


Finches and tortoises – different islands, different appearance

Darwin could not connect biblical views with natural evidence

Darwin concluded – species change over time!! One finch and tortoise diversified to many species

Remembered fossils – concluded they were ancestors of current armadillo and sloth

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Agassiz believed that species were unchanging, and so were their distributions.

However, Darwin’s views gained support and eventually won out.

Agassiz maintained that since organisms arose by a series of independent and special creations, there could be no hereditary continuity between different types of organisms. Each species of plant and animal was a “thought of God,” and homologies or anatomical similarities were “associations of ideas in the Divine Mind.”

Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911)

Hooker was a great friend of Darwin (actually referred to sometimes as “Darwin’s bulldog” as a result of his ferocious defense of the theory of evolution).


Director of the Kew Royal Botanic Garden and good friend of Darwin (the only acknowledged person in the “Origin of Species”)

He was also a very influential botanist who traveled extensively and collected plants from around the world.

Hooker felt that long-distance dispersal was an insufficient explanation for the distribution of many organisms.

He wrote that the evidence supported…

“the hypothesis that of all being members of a once more continuous extensive flora…that once spread over a larger and more continuous tract of land,…which has been broken up by geological and climatic causes.”

When no evidence of vanished land bridges emerged, the extensionist movement lost momentum.

Still, Hooker’s contributions to biogeography were significant.

Philip Lutley Sclater 1829-1913)

Sclater was an ornithologist who described over 1000 species of birds. His writings had a major
impact on zoogeography.


Five Terrestrial biotic regions (for birds)

  • Palearctic
  • Aeteopica
  • Indica
  • Neotropica
  • Nearctica
  • Australiana

Six Marine regions (marine mammals)

Ornithology Collections in the Libraries at Cornell University

Philip Sclater was also responsible for preparing the “Birds” section (1881) of the Zoology volumes of the Report on the scientific results of the voyage of HMS Challenger. The entire set of reports on the Challenger expedition to the South Seas is part of the History of Science Collections. Another useful title of Sclater’s in the Hill Collection is A monograph of the birds forming the tanagrine genus Calliste (1859). The fine-colored plates depict all the known species of tanagers in the genus.

He proposed a scheme that divided the earth into biogeographic regions. His work provides the basis for the biogeographic regions recognized today.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

Wallace is often considered the father of zoogeography.

Wallace wrote three of the most significant books in the history of science:

  • The Malay Archipelago (1869)
  • The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876)
  • Island Life (1880)

The Darwin-Wallace tradition of combining species evolution and dispersalism became the dominant view during the 19th and early 20th centuries:

Developed the theory of evolution (independently from Darwin) –Species evolved due to pressure
from the competition, predation, and environmental factors that favor one variety over another.

Developed numerous biogeographic principles

Biotic Regions similar to Schlater’s

Originator of Zoogeography

  • Distance does not equal taxonomic similarity
  • Integrated geological, fossil, and evolutionary information
  • Considered paleoclimate influences distributions

One of Wallace’s early contributions was the recognition of a distinct break in the faunal compositions between the islands of Bali and Lombok in the East Indies.

As if to offset his catastrophic loss sailing across the Atlantic, Wallace enjoyed a stroke of luck in the South Pacific, though at first it might have looked like a setback. En route to Sulawesi, he missed a connection and wound up spending a couple months in Bali and Lombok. The islands are only about 20 miles apart, but Wallace noticed that they host completely different animal life, Australian in the south and east, and Asian in the north and west. It was a breakthrough in biogeography: the Wallace Line, the recognition of distinctly different organisms living in close proximity to each other in similar environments and essentially identical climates. What he could not know at the time — the theory of plate tectonics was a long way off — was that this line marks the ancient boundary between Laurasia and Gondwana, supercontinents of the Mesozoic.

This break is known today as Wallace’s Line.

From Amazing Evolution by Claybourne and Robins
Cover of The Geographic Distribution of Animals
 from Wallace Online (http://wallace-online.org)

Wallace worked as a surveyor for several years before setting out for Amazon to work as a commercial collector. There, he searched the New World’s rainforests looking for exotic specimens for European buyers. Early on, he began to see himself (accurately) as more than a collector — as a scientific traveler. But the voyage from South America back to England ended in disaster; a fire broke out on the ship. Wallace had suffered multiple tropical fevers in the New World and was recovering from the latest one when the ship caught fire. Still weakened by the illness, he felt “a kind of apathy about saving anything.” He managed to save only some notes and drawings. Leaving everything else to burn, he descended into a lifeboat.

Also, in the 19th Century, other biogeographers contributed some generalized “rules” regarding animal distributions.

  • Bergmann’s rule states that the size of warm-blooded vertebrates tends to be larger in cooler climates. Why might that be?
  • Allen’s rule says that the extremities of such species tend to be larger in warmer climates and smaller in cool climates.
  • Cope’s rule states that the evolution of a group is often accompanied by an increase in size.

However, this increase in size often brings with it increased susceptibility to extinction. It’s important to remember that all of these rules are generalizations and that there are many exceptions.

In the early decades of the 20th Century, paleontologists contributed greatly to our understanding of the origin, dispersal, and ultimate decline of many groups of vertebrates.

Much debate focused on “centers of origin”, the place where a group developed.

Alfred Wegener (1880- 1930)

Theory of continental drift – 1912 (first introduced by Antonio Snider-Pelligrini in 1858)


Not widely accepted until the 1960s

Revolutionized biogeography – rethink reasons for species distributional patterns

Some truly revolutionary scientific theories may take years or decades to win general acceptance among scientists. This is certainly true of plate tectonics, one of the most important and far-ranging geological theories of all time; when first proposed, it was ridiculed, but steadily accumulating evidence finally prompted its acceptance, with immense consequences for geology, geophysics, oceanography, and paleontology. And the man who first proposed this theory was a brilliant interdisciplinary scientist, Alfred Wegener.


  • Continents formerly joined
  • Slowly drifting on Earth’s surface


  • Landmasses fit together like a jigsaw
  • The geological similarity between matching sides of continents
  • Fossil similarities between matching sides of continents
Ernst Mayr (1893- 1969)

Biological species concept (group of individuals that can reproduce among themselves and not with other groups)

Insights into mechanisms of allopatric speciation

Allopatric speciation (arising through geographic isolation)

He wrote more than 100 papers on avian taxonomy, including Birds of the Southwest Pacific (1945).

He proposed 1940 a definition of species that won wide acceptance in scientific circles and led to the discovery of a number of previously unknown species; by the time of his death, he had named some 25 new bird species and 410 subspecies.

G. E. Hutchinson (1903-1991)

Multidimensional niche concept

Mechanisms of species coexistence

Father of Limnology

Hutchinson’s theory has influenced generations of biologists and is the basis for our understanding that an ecosystem is a collection of plants and animals, where each species has a defined “job” — its niche — in a balance of coexistence, competition, and predation.

Having proposed the theory that multiple species in an environment sort themselves through competition into a stable “balance of nature,” Hutchinson later began to doubt whether ecosystems really tended toward a stable state.

  • Dr. M.B.POTDAR (Professor Shivaji University Kolhapur)

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