Vicars, tramps and assembly of the New Zealand avifauna: a review of molecular phylogenetic evidence


*Corresponding author.


The avifauna of New Zealand is taxonomically and ecologically distinctive, as is typical of island biotas. However, the potential for an old geological age of New Zealand has encouraged a popular notion of a ‘Moa’s ark’ based on the idea that much of the fauna was isolated when Zealandia broke from Gondwana c. 83 million years ago. Molecular phylogenetics has proved useful for exploring the relative importance of different biogeographical processes, revealing for example that ‘tramp’ species (widely dispersing taxa) have arrived in New Zealand even in the last few hundred years, and that some avian taxa have close phylogenetic relatives overseas (predominantly Australian), indicating their recent ancestors were tramps, too. Distinctive taxa with deep phylogenetic ancestry might be ‘vicars’ that owe their presence to vicariance, but lack of close morphological, taxonomic and phylogenetic affinity provides only tenuous evidence for this. Disproving the alternative possibility that apparent vicars are descended from tramps that dispersed in earlier times remains challenging, but molecular analyses have yielded startling insights. Among New Zealand’s iconic taxa, the world’s largest eagle shared a Pleistocene ancestor with a small Australian eagle, and giant, flightless moa are phylogenetic sisters of the much smaller, flying tinamous of South America. The New Zealand avifauna is neither isolated nor stable, but demonstrative of prolonged and ongoing colonization, speciation and extinction.