New Zealand phylogeography: evolution on a small continent


  • Graham Wallis works on phylogeography, speciation and hybridization in NZ endemics. Currently he is trying to elucidate the molecular basis for loss of diadromy in galaxiid fishes. Steven Trewick studies the evolution and biogeography of the NZ fauna, especially orthopterans and phasmids.

Graham P. Wallis, Fax: +64 3 479 7584; E-mail:


New Zealand has long been a conundrum to biogeographers, possessing as it does geophysical and biotic features characteristic of both an island and a continent. This schism is reflected in provocative debate among dispersalist, vicariance biogeographic and panbiogeographic schools. A strong history in biogeography has spawned many hypotheses, which have begun to be addressed by a flood of molecular analyses. The time is now ripe to synthesize these findings on a background of geological and ecological knowledge. It has become increasingly apparent that most of the biota of New Zealand has links with other southern lands (particularly Australia) that are much more recent than the breakup of Gondwana. A compilation of molecular phylogenetic analyses of ca 100 plant and animal groups reveals that only 10% of these are even plausibly of archaic origin dating to the vicariant splitting of Zealandia from Gondwana. Effects of lineage extinction and lack of good calibrations in many cases strongly suggest that the actual proportion is even lower, in keeping with extensive Oligocene inundation of Zealandia. A wide compilation of papers covering phylogeographic structuring of terrestrial, freshwater and marine species shows some patterns emerging. These include: east–west splits across the Southern Alps, east–west splits across North Island, north–south splits across South Island, star phylogenies of southern mountain isolates, spread from northern, central and southern areas of high endemism, and recent recolonization (postvolcanic and anthropogenic). Excepting the last of these, most of these patterns seem to date to late Pliocene, coinciding with the rapid uplift of the Southern Alps. The diversity of New Zealand geological processes (sinking, uplift, tilting, sea level change, erosion, volcanism, glaciation) has produced numerous patterns, making generalizations difficult. Many species maintain pre-Pleistocene lineages, with phylogeographic structuring more similar to the Mediterranean region than northern Europe. This structure reflects the fact that glaciation was far from ubiquitous, despite the topography. Intriguingly, then, origins of the flora and fauna are island-like, whereas phylogeographic structure often reflects continental geological processes.