New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2010) 34(1): 137- 151

Comparative biogeography of New Zealand trees: species richness, height, leaf traits and range sizes

Review Article
Matt S McGlone 1*
Sarah J. Richardson 1
Greg J. Jordan 2
  1. Landcare Research, PO Box 40, Lincoln 7640, New Zealand
  2. School of Life Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia
*  Corresponding author

New Zealand forests grow under highly oceanic climates on an isolated southern archipelago. They experience a combination of historical and environmental factors matched nowhere else. This paper explores whether the New Zealand tree flora also differs systematically from those found in other temperate and island areas. A compilation of traits and distributions from standard floras is used to compare the New Zealand tree flora with those of Europe, North America, Chile, southern Australia, Fiji and Hawaii. New Zealand has a large number of trees (215 species ≥6 m in height). It is more tree-rich than temperate North America and Europe having up to 50% more species at a quadrat scale of 2.5º latitude x 2.5º longitude. However, this richness is due to a greater abundance of small trees (≤15 m in height) and we argue that it is a legacy of allopatric speciation and radiation during the late Neogene (2.5–10 million yrs ago) when the New Zealand landmass was repeatedly split into smaller island groups and mountain building occurred. The leaves of New Zealand trees, along with those of southeast Australia, are smaller and narrower than those of the temperate northern hemisphere. Dominance of the canopy by small-leaved evergreen conifers and angiosperms may have facilitated the persistence of small tree species in the lower canopy. The proportion of tree species with a deciduous or divaricating habit, and toothed-margin leaves, increases with latitude, suggesting a link with lower winter temperatures in the south. Tree species richness decreases with increasing latitude and, in conformity with Rapoport’s Rule, latitudinal range width increases. Wide-range trees are mainly bird-dispersed, fast-growing seral small trees, or long-lived, tall podocarps. Wide-range trees appear to have no greater tolerance of climate extremes than narrow-range trees, and their persistence at high latitudes derives from their enhanced colonization ability.