New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2013) 37(1): 105- 113

Evolution of New Zealand alpine and open-habitat plant species during the late Cenozoic

Research Article
Peter B. Heenan *
Matt S. McGlone  
  1. Landcare Research, PO Box 40, Lincoln 7640, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

Understanding the evolutionary history and biogeography of the New Zealand alpine flora has been impeded by the lack of an integrated model of geomorphology and climate events during the Late Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene. A new geobiological model is presented that integrates rock uplift age, rate of uplift and the resulting summit elevations in the Southern Alps (South Island) during the last 8.0 million years with a climate template using the natural gamma radiation pattern from the eastern South Island Ocean Drilling Program Site 1119 that covers the past 3.9 million years. This model specifically defines the average treeline in relation to mountain height, allowing predictions as to the timing of the formation of the alpine zone and other open habitats. This model predicts open habitats such as rock bluffs, tussock grasslands and riverbeds would have been available from about 4.0–3.0 Ma, coinciding with the initiation of summit uplift and a cooling climate providing an opportunity for the evolution of generalist alpine and open-habitat herbs and shrubs. Alpine habitats began to form at about 1.9 Ma and were a permanent feature of the Southern Alps from about 0.95 Ma. Specialist alpine plants confined to alpine habitats can have evolved only within this period once the alpine zone was persistent and widespread. Bog habitats are likely to date from the Late Miocene (c. 6.0 Ma), and the specialist bog species would have evolved from this time. Molecular-clock dates for DNA sequences from species of specialist alpine habitats, generalist open habitats, and bog habitats are consistent with predictions made on the basis of the model.