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

The phytogeography of the Australian region

NT Burbidge

Australian Journal of Botany 8(2) 75 - 211
Published: 1960


The Australian phytogeographic region is defined as including the Australian mainland and Tasmania. This region may be subdivided into the Tropical Zone in the north and east, the Temperate Zone in the south and east, and the Eremaean Zone in the arid centre. Delineation of these zones is closely linked with present day climates but their floristic constituents also reflect selection resulting from past climatic and geographic conditions. The following areas are of special phytogeographic interest: South-West Province of Western Australia, Tasmania, Sorth-East Queensland, and the MacPherson–Macleay Overlap where the Tropical and Temperate Zones coincide. Three interzone areas have been defined where special circumstances prevent the drawing of zonal boundaries.

In Parts A and B floristic analyses covering the distribution of Australian phanerogamic genera are provided for the Australian Region and for the special areas listed above. The analyses deal with family representation, endemism, and the estimated number of species present.

The flora of the South-West Province reveals the highest proportion of endemism though there is a close relationship with the flora of the eastern part of the Temperate Zone. The existing west-east affinities and discontinuities are discussed in relation to climatic changes. The Province is not regarded as the "cradle" of the autochthonous elements of the Australian flora though it is apparently an asylum for many relict forms. Affinities with the flora of South Africa are not higher than those for other areas of the Australian Region. the Temperate Zone. The existing west-east affinities and discontinuities are discussed in relation to climatic changes. The Province is not regarded as the "cradle" of the autochthonous elements of the Australian flora though it is apparently an asylum for many relict forms. Affinities with the flora of South Africa are not higher than those for other areas of the Australian Region.

The flora of Tasmania is not highly endemic at the generic level but it is of special interest because of certain affinities with the flora of Malaysia and with genera otherwise found along the Malaysia–New Zealand arc or genera also in South America. In some cases the genera are unknown on the mainland, in others they are known from Australian Tertiary deposits. The Tasmanian flora is considered to include (1) relicts from early Tertiary floras, (2) survivors from the cold climate regimes of the Pleistocene, and (3) Australian elements which have mingled with the flora during periods of land continuity.

The North-East Queensland area is defined as including the high rainfall habitats of the eastern parts of Cape York Peninsula. An outstanding number of families, genera, and species are restricted to this area so far as the Australian Region is concerned. Many genera are limited to a single representative which may also occur in Malaysia. It is suggested that a proportion of these may be recent arrivals while others, known as fossils from southern deposits, have a more restricted distribution than in the past. The close affinity with the flora of New Guinea is obvious but there are certain affinities with the floras of New Caledonia and New Zealand which may be independent of those of other parts of the Australian Region. Consideration is given to the problems of migration of temperate elements between the northern and southern hemispheres and the passage of such elements through the tropical belt.

The MacPherson–Macleay Overlap is defined as that area of eastern Australia where the Tropical and Temperate Zones overlap. It includes part of south-east Queensland and part of north-east New South Wales. Within this area tropical elements predominate in the wetter habitats of the eastern slopes of the ranges and temperate elements in the drier or cooler and more open sites. Many of the tropical elements are to be found in discontinuous areas to the south of the Overlap but there is no similar pattern of temperate communities to the north. The Overlap is of special interest in the discussion of discontinuous distributions in eastern Australia and the significance of these.

The development of the Australian flora is discussed in Part C. Its present composition is regarded as primarily due to climatic selection both within the region and from the biotypes available as a result of migration. Migration by communities rather than by chance dispersal of individuals is considered a prime factor.

Though the data concerning Tertiary floras are not extensive certain significant facts emerge. First there is a stronger affinity with the flora of South America and this must be contrasted with the marked lack of data suggesting a similarly increased relationship with southern Africa. The relationship between fossil and modern representatives of such genera as Podocarpus, Dacrydium, and Nothofagus suggests that there has been a northward migration or a withdrawal to warmer latitudes since the Tertiary. All the main elements of the present day flora are represented In the Tertiary assemblages. If current views on the "Malaysian" or "tropical" nature of some affinities and the "Antarctic" nature of others be accepted then there is no indication that the major migration into the Australian Region came from one particular direction.

Possible climatic regimes and changes are discussed. It is suggested that the occurrence of cold pluvial conditions in southern Australia implies a contraction of the arid centre rather than a northward shift of the dry tropical belt. Under such circumstances northern Australia could still have enjoyed a warm wet climate. This opinion is supported by certain distribution patterns and by the pedological data concerning laterite formation.

Apart from the Australian, Malaysian, and Antarctic elements in the Australian flora there are also temperate elements with northern hemisphere affinities. Some of these are found in temperate communities in both hemispheres but others are endemic to and characteristic of the Eremaean Zone. The Eremaean flora may have originated from a coastal sand dune and littoral type. It is suggested that it developed from elements that migrated to the Australian Region as early as the Cretaceous when there may have been a coastal continuity with the Tethys Sea. It is further postulated that these plants remained in coastal habitats but moved inland, possibly along southern estuarine coasts, and became isolated under arid conditions during the Pleistocene or Recent Times.

The evidence is that eastern Australia has been a very important migration route for a very long period, being linked with the northern hemisphere through Malaysia. Northward migration of Australian elements has apparently been less successful than southward migration of Malaysian elements. It is considered that the ecological barrier formed by dense tropical communities must have inhibited northward movement of the light-requiring Australian types. The significance of such a barrier would be dependent on the climatic conditions during periods of land continuity between Australia and Malaysia and between Australia and New Guinea.

Relationships between the Australian Region and Kew Zealand are either linked with those between Australia and South America, i.e. related to some unknown southern route, or they concern genera with distribution patterns involving New Guinea or New Guinea and New Caledonia. The opinion that Australia and New Zealand belong together in a biogeographic region is unacceptable unless such a, region includes a portion of the island arc in the north-east.

The long-standing floristic relationship between Australia and Malaysia, a relationship which from geological evidence apparently extends back as far as the Cretaceous at least, coupled with the affinities among both fossil and modern plants with the flora of South America but not with southern Africa, militates against unqualified acceptance of any of the hypotheses, such as that of continental drift, which have been proposed to explain biological affinities between the major land masses. Plant distribution patterns are facts which can be demonstrated and at this stage of our knowledge further critical analysis is more important than the correlation between available facts and proposed explanations.

© CSIRO 1960

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