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Keywords:

  • Biogeography;
  • fire;
  • geological history;
  • monsoon climate;
  • northern Australia;
  • phylogeny

Abstract

Aim  This paper reviews the biogeography of the Australian monsoon tropical biome to highlight general patterns in the distribution of a range of organisms and their environmental correlates and evolutionary history, as well as to identify knowledge gaps.

Location  Northern Australia, Australian Monsoon Tropics (AMT). The AMT is defined by areas that receive more than 85% of rainfall between November and April.

Methods  Literature is summarized, including the origin of the monsoon climate, present-day environment, biota and habitat types, and phylogenetic and geographical relationships of selected organisms.

Results  Some species are widespread throughout the AMT while others are narrow-range endemics. Such contrasting distributions correspond to present-day climates, hydrologies (particularly floodplains), geological features (such as sandstone plateaux), fire regimes, and vegetation types (ranging from rain forest to savanna). Biogeographical and phylogenetic studies of terrestrial plants (e.g. eucalypts) and animals (vertebrates and invertebrates) suggest that distinct bioregions within the AMT reflect the aggregated effects of landscape and environmental history, although more research is required to determine and refine the boundaries of biogeographical zones within the AMT. Phylogenetic analyses of aquatic organisms (fishes and prawns) suggest histories of associations with drainage systems, dispersal barriers, links to New Guinea, and the existence of Lake Carpentaria, now submerged by the Gulf of Carpentaria. Complex adaptations to the landscape and climate in the AMT are illustrated by a number of species.

Main conclusions  The Australian monsoon is a component of a single global climate system, characterized by a dominant equator-spanning Hadley cell. Evidence of hot, seasonally moist climates dates back to the Late Eocene, implying that certain endemic elements of the AMT biota have a long history. Vicariant differentiation is inferred to have separated the Kimberley and Arnhem Land bioregions from Cape York Peninsula/northern Queensland. Such older patterns are overlaid by younger events, including dispersal from Southeast Asia, and range expansions and contractions. Future palaeoecological and phylogenetic investigations will illuminate the evolution of the AMT biome. Understanding the biogeography of the AMT is essential to provide a framework for ecological studies and the sustainable development of the region.