When the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia opened about 3.5 Ma during the early Pliocene, cool-temperate and polar marine species were able to move between the North Pacific and Arctic-Atlantic basins. In order to investigate the extent, pattern, and dynamics of this trans-Arctic interchange, I reviewed the Recent and fossil distributions of post-Miocene shell-bearing Mollusca in each of five northern regions: (1) the northeastern Atlantic (Lofoten Islands to the eastern entrance of the English Channel and the northern entrance of the Irish Sea), (2) northwestern Atlantic (southern Labrador to Cape Cod), (3) northeastern Pacific (Bering Strait to Puget Sound), (4) northwestern Pacific (Bering Strait to Hokkaido and the northern Sea of Japan), and (5) Arctic (areas north of the Lofoten Islands, southern Labrador, and Bering Strait).
I have identified 295 molluscan species that either took part in the interchange or are descended from taxa that did. Of these, 261 are of Pacific origin, whereas only 34 are of Arctic-Atlantic origin. Various analyses of the pattern of invasion confirm earlier work, indicating that there is a strong bias in favor of species with a Pacific origin.
A geographical analysis of invaders implies that, although trans-Arctic interchange contributed to a homogenization of the biotas of the northern oceans, significant barriers to dispersal exist and have existed for trans-Arctic invaders within the Arctic-Atlantic basin. Nevertheless, trans-Arctic invaders in the Atlantic have significantly broader geographical ranges than do taxa with a pre-Pliocene history in the Atlantic.
Among the possible explanations for the asymmetry of trans-Arctic invasion, two hypotheses were explicitly tested. The null hypothesis of diversity states that the number of invaders from a biota is proportional to the total number of species in that biota. Estimates of Recent molluscan diversity show that the North Pacific is 1.5 to 2.7 times richer than is the Arctic-Atlantic, depending on how faunistic comparisons are made. This difference in diversity is much smaller than is the asymmetry of trans-Arctic invasion in favor of Pacific species. Rough estimates of regional Pliocene diversity suggest that differences in diversity during the Pliocene were smaller than they are in the Recent fauna. The null hypothesis was therefore rejected.
The hypothesis of ecological opportunity states that the number of invaders to a region is proportional to the number of species that became extinct there. The post-Early Pliocene magnitude of extinction was lowest in the North Pacific, intermediate in the northeastern Atlantic, and probably highest in the northwestern Atlantic. The absolute number and faunistic importance of post-Early Pliocene invaders (including trans-Arctic species, as well as taxa previously confined to warm-temperate waters and western Atlantic species that previously occurred only in the eastern Atlantic) was lowest in the North Pacific, intermediate in the northeastern Atlantic, and highest in the northwestern Atlantic. Further support for the hypothesis of ecological opportunity comes from the finding that hard-bottom communities, especially those in the northwestern Atlantic, show a higher representation of molluscan species of Pacific origin, and are likely to have been more affected by climatic events, than were communities on unconsolidated sandy and muddy bottoms. Support for the hypothesis does not rule out other explanations for the observed asymmetry of trans-Arctic invasion.
A preliminary study of species-level evolution within lineages of trans-Arctic invaders indicates that anagenesis and cladogenesis have been more frequent among groups with Pacific origins than among those with Atlantic origins, and that the regions within the Arctic-Atlantic basin with the highest absolute number and faunistic representation of invaders (western Atlantic and Arctic) are the regions in which speciation has been least common among the invaders. The asymmetry of invasion is therefore distinct from the asymmetry of species-level evolution of invaders in the various northern marine regions.