Aim We tested an entrenched concept – that the Australian rain forest flora is essentially a Gondwanan relict. We also assessed the role of regional-level source–sink dynamics in the assembly of this flora.
Location Eastern Australia.
Methods To avoid potential biases inherent in selective studies undertaken to date, we used an analytical, whole-of-flora approach integrated with the fossil record. We identified disjunctions between woody Australian rain forest plant taxa and relatives on other land masses. To test the strength of the fossil evidence for the regional antiquity of this flora, we evaluated the proportion of these disjunct clades represented in the Australian fossil record, and to minimize the effects of biases in this record, we compared late Quaternary (i.e. late Pleistocene and Holocene, 126–0 ka), Pliocene and late Oligocene–early Miocene Australian pollen records interpreted as tropical rain forest. Using within-species disjunctions as a proxy, we assessed the role of recent immigration from Asia into Australia. To assess the role of source–sink dynamics, we performed comparative analyses of disjunctions in major rain forest categories representing a north–south/climatic gradient.
Results Southern Australian, cool temperate (microthermal) rain forests contain many floristic disjunctions with Gondwanan fragments and most of these clades have Gondwanan fossils. Disjunct clades in Australian mesothermal rain forest mostly occur in Asia/Malesia and a low proportion of these clades show pre-Neogene records. Many clades in lowland tropical and ‘dry’ rain forest show disjunctions with Asia/Malesia and few have Australian fossil records. Rates of recent immigration from Asia/Malesia are high in these northern forests, and outweigh rates of recent emigration approximately nine-fold. The late Quaternary fossil record has many more rain forest angiosperms than Oligocene–Miocene and Pliocene floras, consistent with extensive late Cenozoic immigration.
Main conclusions The microthermal rain forests are largely Gondwanan relicts, but there is progressively greater, and more recent contribution from Asia/Malesia into more northern, and more lowland tropical rain forests. This variation reflects a strong gradient in geographic and ecological proximity between these forests and source floras in Asia/Malesia, and is consistent with a source–sink size model of immigration driven by late Cenozoic contractions and expansions of Australian rain forest.