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Forest Vines to Snow Tussocks: The Story of New Zealand Plants

Adaptive Radiation

Adaptive Radiation

Many genera on isolated islands exhibit a much wider range of growth forms and occupy a much wider range of habitats than the same or related genera on continents. Thus on mountainous islands like Hawaiʻi, some species of a genus may be small and herbaceous and occupy coastal and lowland open habitats, other species may be small trees in wet forests at various altitudes, and yet others shrubs or herbs in alpine vegetation. Carlquist,3, 4 who has closely studied island floras and faunas, suggests that the first species of a plant genus to arrive is likely to be a weedy herb, because in general weeds are good dispersers and hardy enough to tolerate the raw open conditions of a new volcanic island. In such a situation many habitats will remain unoccupied for some time (particularly, Carlquist suggests, those suitable for moist forests), so any variants of the weedy coloniser with habitat requirements different from the parent population would have a very good chance of establishing in an unoccupied niche. In turn a variant population could give rise to other variants to occupy further niches including, if the island is high enough, those of alpine habitats. Such a burst of speciation into unoccupied habitats has been termed 'adaptive radiation'. It is not suggested, however, that a species increases its ability to give rise to new varieties and species on migrating from a continent to an isolated island. On the continent it would also form variants, but these would rarely find unoccupied habitats suited to their needs.

Carlquist's view that weedy herbs are frequently the first colonisers of isolated islands implies a general trend in plant evolution on some islands from herbs to trees. This is entirely possible, but it would be an unusual direction for evolution to take, if the generally accepted idea that herbs are advanced, relatively recent in origin and derived from page 16woody ancestors, is correct. In opposition to Carlquist's view some botanists believe that tree species on isolated islands, belonging to genera or even families which are otherwise mostly herbaceous, are primitive ancestral forms that have survived there because of the mild oceanic climates and reduced competition.7 On continents, particularly those of the northern hemisphere, woody species of these groups have generally given way to herbaceous species better suited to the strongly seasonal climates which have developed at higher latitudes on continents in recent geological time.