Although the tropics harbor greater numbers of species than do temperate zones, it is not known whether the rates of speciation and extinction also follow a latitudinal gradient. By sampling birds and mammals, we found that the distribution of the evolutionary ages of sister species—pairs of species in which each is the other’s closest relative—adheres to a latitudinal gradient. The time to divergence for sister species is shorter at high latitudes and longer in the tropics. Birth-death models fitting these data estimate that the highest recent speciation and extinction rates occur at high latitudes and decline toward the tropics. These results conflict with the prevailing view that links high tropical diversity to elevated tropical speciation rates. Instead, our findings suggest that faster turnover at high latitudes contributes to the latitudinal diversity gradient.