Aim To compare the phylogeny of the eucalypt and melaleuca groups with geological events and ages of fossils to discover the time frame of clade divergences.
Location Australia, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Indonesian Archipelago.
Methods We compare published molecular phylogenies of the eucalypt and melaleuca groups of the plant family Myrtaceae with geological history and known fossil records from the Cretaceous and Cenozoic.
Results The Australasian eucalypt group includes seven genera, of which some are relictual rain forest taxa of restricted distribution and others are species-rich and widespread in drier environments. Based on molecular and morphological data, phylogenetic analyses of the eucalypt group have identified two major clades. The monotypic Arillastrum endemic to New Caledonia is related in one clade to the more species-rich Angophora, Corymbia and Eucalyptus that dominate the sclerophyll vegetation of Australia. Based on the time of rifting of New Caledonia from eastern Gondwana and the age of fossil eucalypt pollen, we argue that this clade extends back to the Late Cretaceous. The second clade includes three relictual rain forest taxa, with Allosyncarpia from Arnhem Land the sister taxon to Eucalyptopsis of New Guinea and the eastern Indonesian archipelago, and Stockwellia from the Atherton Tableland in north-east Queensland. As monsoonal, drier conditions evolved in northern Australia, Arnhem Land was isolated from the wet tropics to the east and north during the Oligocene, segregating ancestral rain forest biota. It is argued also that the distribution of species in Eucalyptopsis and Eucalyptus subgenus Symphyomyrtus endemic in areas north of the stable edge of the Australian continent, as far as Sulawesi and the southern Philippines, is related to the geological history of south-east Asia-Australasia. Colonization (dispersal) may have been aided by rafting on micro-continental fragments, by accretion of arc terranes onto New Guinea and by land brought into closer proximity during periods of low sea-level, from the Late Miocene and Pliocene. The phylogenetic position of the few northern, non-Australian species of Eucalyptus subgenus Symphyomyrtus suggests rapid radiation in the large Australian sister group(s) during this time frame. A similar pattern, connecting Australia and New Caledonia, is emerging from phylogenetic analysis of the Melaleuca group (Beaufortia suballiance) within Myrtaceae, with Melaleuca being polyphyletic.
Main conclusion The eucalypt group is an old lineage extending back to the Late Cretaceous. Differentiation of clades is related to major geological and climatic events, including rifting of New Caledonia from eastern Gondwana, development of monsoonal and drier climates, collision of the northern edge of the Australian craton with island arcs and periods of low sea level. Vicariance events involve dispersal of biota.