Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems

Can long-distance dispersal be inferred from the New Zealand plant fossil record?

Australian Journal of Botany 49(3) 357 - 366
Published: 2001


New Zealand is generally thought to have been physically isolated from the rest of the world for over 60 million years. But physical isolation may not mean biotic isolation, at least on the time scale of millions of years. Are New Zealand’s present complement of plants the direct descendants of what originally rafted from Gondwana? Or has there been total extinction of this initial flora with replacement through long-distance dispersal (a complete biotic turnover)? These are two possible extremes which have come under recent discussion. Can the fossil record be used to decide the relative importance of the two endpoints, or is it simply too incomplete and too dependent on factors of chance? This paper suggests two approaches to the problem—the use of statistics to apply levels of confidence to first appearances in the fossil record and the analysis of trends based on the entire palynorecord.

Statistics can suggest that the first appearance of a taxon was after New Zealand broke away from Gondwana—as long as the first appearance in the record was not due to an increase in biomass from an initially rare state. Two observations can be drawn from the overall palynorecord that are independent of changes in biomass:

(1) The first appearance of palynotaxa common to both Australia and New Zealand is decidedly non-random. Most taxa occur first in Australia. This suggests a bias in air or water transport from west to east.

(2) The percentage of endemic palynospecies in New Zealand shows no simple correlation with the time New Zealand drifted into isolation.

The conifer macrorecord also hints at complete turnover since the Cretaceous.

© CSIRO 2001

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