Patterns of biological diversity should be interpreted in light of both contemporary and historical influences; however, to date, most attempts to explain diversity patterns have largely ignored history or have been unable to quantify the influence of historical processes. The historical effects on patterns of diversity have been hypothesized to be most important for taxonomic groups with poor dispersal abilities. We quantified the relative stability of rainforests over the late Quaternary period by modeling rainforest expansion and contraction in 21 biogeographic subregions in northeast Australia across four time periods. We demonstrate that historical habitat stability can be as important, and in endemic low-dispersal taxa even more important, than current habitat area in explaining spatial patterns of species richness. In contrast, patterns of endemic species richness for taxa with high dispersal capacity are best predicted by using current environmental parameters. We also show that contemporary patterns of species turnover across the region are best explained by historical patterns of habitat connectivity. These results clearly demonstrate that spatially explicit analyses of the historical processes of persistence and colonization are both effective and necessary for understanding observed patterns of biodiversity.
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