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Endemism, species selection and the origin and distribution of the vascular plant flora of New Zealand


McGlone Landcare Research, PO Box 69, LINCOLN 8152, New Zealand. Tel.: +64 3 3256700; Fax: +64 3 325 2418; E-mail:



To evaluate competing views on the origin and distribution of the New Zealand flora by testing the hypothesis that the geographical distribution of species is unrelated to ecological traits such as habitat requirements and dispersal capabilities.


The New Zealand archipelago.


An analysis of the factors correlated with distribution and endemism for alpine plants within New Zealand, and for the New Zealand biota as a whole.


Woody plants are highly endemic; nonendemic plants tend to be herbaceous and are concentrated among the highly dispersible ferns and fern allies, orchids and wetland plants. These groups make up 32% of the total flora but contribute 78% of nonendemics. Alpine plants with wide spatial distribution tend to have greater altitudinal ranges, a broader habitat preference and better dispersal ability.

Main conclusions

Most vascular plants reached New Zealand by long-distance transoceanic dispersal, probably during the Late Miocene to early Pleistocene period. During the Miocene and Pliocene, similar climates and landscapes to those of Australia and northern island groups, and highly invasible terrain, permitted dispersal of woody plants. Cooling climates and formation of a more mountainous, more compact landscape after that time reduced dispersal of woody plants and favoured herbaceous, wetland and highly dispersible plant groups. The prominence of dispersal has led to intense selective immigration, and is responsible for many characteristic features of the flora. Species selection by glacial–interglacial cycles has restricted acquisition or retention of cool or arid climate adaptations, particularly in the lowland flora. Endemic and range disjunction patterns in the New Zealand mainland are not, in general, directly caused by Pliocene inundations or the faulting and associated horizontal displacement of terrain that has continued since the Miocene. They have arisen mainly through Pleistocene extinctions, speciation and dispersal, and some patterns are strongly linked to repeated glaciation. Endemic centres are associated with differentiated terrain and climates providing isolation, distinctive environments, and habitat continuity conducive to speciation.

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