Despite its wide implications for many ecological issues, the global pattern of spatial turnover in the occurrence of species has been little studied, unlike the global pattern of species richness. Here, using a database on the breeding distributions of birds, we present the first global maps of variation in spatial turnover for an entire taxonomic class, a pattern that has to date remained largely a matter of conjecture, based on theoretical expectations and extrapolation of inconsistent patterns from different biogeographic realms. We use these maps to test four predictions from niche theory as to the form that this variation should take, namely that turnover should increase with species richness, towards lower latitudes, and with the steepness of environmental gradients and that variation in turnover is determined principally by rare (restricted) species. Contrary to prediction, we show that turnover is high both in areas of extremely low and high species richness, does not increase strongly towards the tropics, and is related both to average environmental conditions and spatial variation in those conditions. These results are closely associated with a further important and novel finding, namely that global patterns of spatial turnover are driven principally by widespread species rather than the restricted ones. This complements recent demonstrations that spatial patterns of species richness are also driven principally by widespread species, and thus provides an important contribution towards a unified model of how terrestrial biodiversity varies both within and between the Earth's major land masses.
Keywords: beta diversity, environmental gradients, global avifauna, niche theory, spatial turnover