New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2009) 33(2): 156- 163

Heteroblasty on Chatham Island: A comparison with New Zealand and New Caledonia

Research Article
K.C. Burns *
John W. Dawson  
  1. School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

We used a comparative approach to investigate heteroblasty in the Chatham Islands. Heteroblasty refers to abrupt changes in the morphology of leaves and shoots with plant height. Common on isolated islands such as New Caledonia and New Zealand, which once had flightless, browsing birds, heteroblasty is hypothesised to be an adaptation to deter bird browsing. The Chatham Islands are a small archipelago located 800 km off the east coast of New Zealand, which has clear floristic links to New Zealand. However, unlike New Caledonia and New Zealand, the Chathams never had flightless, browsing birds. We investigated heteroblasty on the Chatham Islands by: (1) comparing height-related changes in leaf morphology and branching architecture in several plant taxa with heteroblastic relatives on the New Zealand mainland; (2) characterising changes in leaf morphology in heteroblastic tree species endemic to the Chathams; and (3) comparing overall trends in leaf heteroblasty on the Chathams with New Caledonia and New Zealand. Reversions to homoblasty were observed in the three Chatham Island taxa with heteroblastic relatives on the New Zealand mainland. However, two endemic tree species were clearly heteroblastic; both produced dramatically larger leaves as juveniles than as adults. Inter-archipelago comparisons showed that this trend in leaf morphology is rare among heteroblastic species in New Caledonia and New Zealand. Therefore, while some of our results were consistent with the hypothesis that heteroblasty is an adaptation to avoid bird browsing, other processes also appear to have shaped the expression of heteroblasty on Chatham Island.