The mid-domain effect and species richness patterns: What have we learned so far?

If species' ranges are randomly shuffled within a bounded geographical domain free of environmental gradients, ranges overlap increasingly toward the center of the domain, creating a "middomain" peak of species richness. This "mid-domain effect" (MDE) has been controversial both in concept and in application. Empirical studies assess the degree to which the evolutionary, ecological, and historical processes that undeniably act on individual species and clades produce geographical patterns that resemble those produced by MDE models. MDE models that resample empirical range size frequency distributions (RSFDs) balance the risk of underestimating and overestimating the role of MDE, whereas theoretical RSFDs are generally biased toward underestimating MDE. We discuss the inclusion of nonendemic species in MDE models, rationales for setting domain limits, and the validity of one- and two-dimensional MDE models. MDE models, though null models, are not null hypotheses to be simplistically rejected or accepted. They are a means of estimating the expected effect of geometric constraints within the context of multiple causality. We call for assessment of MDE on an equal statistical footing with other candidate explanations for richness gradients. Although some critics have categorically dismissed MDE, an overview of the 21 MDE studies published to date reveals a substantial signature of MDE in natural patterns and justifies continued work.