The New Zealand Subantarctic Islands, emergent remnants of the Campbell Plateau, were given World Heritage status in 1998 in recognition of their importance to global biodiversity. We describe the flora and fauna of these islands and discuss the results of recent phylogenetic analyses. Part of the New Zealand Subantarctic biota appears to be relictual and to be derived from west Gondwana. The relictual element is characterized by genera endemic to the Campbell Plateau that show relationships with taxa of the southern South Island, New Zealand, southern South America, and the north Pacific. In contrast, a younger, east Gondwanan element is composed of species that are either taxonomically identical to widespread mainland species, or endemic species with close New Zealand relatives. Area cladograms support the inclusion of the southern South Island, New Zealand and Macquarie Island (although this is separate geologically) as parts of the Campbell Plateau, but suggest the Chatham Rise and Torlesse terranes of the eastern South Island, New Zealand were originally parts of east Gondwana. East and west Antarctica acted as independent plates during the breakup of Gondwana, and were separated by oceanic crust until a compressive phase sutured them along the trace of the trans-Antarctic mountains during the early Tertiary. The Campbell Plateau microcontinent was connected to west Antarctica until its separation at 80 Mya, contemporaneous with the separation of the southern portion of the Melanesian rift from east Gondwana. Presently the Campbell Plateau is joined to the Melanesian Rift along the Alpine Fault. Cenozoic plate tectonic reconstructions place the Campbell Plateau adjacent to the Melanesian Rift throughout the rift–drift phase, relative motion being confined to strike–slip movement over the last 20 Myr. Our synthesis of phylogenetic and plate tectonic evidence suggests that the Alpine Fault is the most recent development of a much older extensional rift/basin boundary originally separating west and east Gondwana. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 86, 95–115.