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

Sexual Patterns

Sexual Patterns

It would seem obvious that a plant species with self-fertile hermaphrodite flowers would stand a better chance of establishing on an isolated island than an hermaphrodite species which is self-sterile or a species with separate male and female plants, a condition known as dioecism. In both the latter cases one plant would not be sufficient to form a population; at least two would be required — one male and one female in the case of a dioecious species — and they would have to establish at the same place and coincide or overlap in time. In some cases, however, this might not be unlikely, as in some species seeds tend to be transported in groups. Berries often contain several small seeds, so a bird might eat a number of berries of a particular species, transport them internally and deposit them in a group on an isolated island. This could be the case with the dioecious, berry-fruited genus Coprosma, so strongly represented in both the New Zealand and Hawaiian floras. Sticky or barbed seeds which attach themselves externally to birds or seeds in mud might also be transported in groups, but this would be less likely with seeds conveyed by winds or ocean currents. Nevertheless, the odds would seem to favour self-fertilising plants as colonisers of isolated islands, and we would expect a lower percentage of say dioecious species on such islands than on a continent. Paradoxically, the reverse is the case. In Hawaiʻi it is estimated that 27.5 per cent of the species are dioecious,3 a much higher proportion than for the United Kingdom, for example, where it is estimated only 2 per cent of species are in this category.

How can this be? If dioecious species are less likely to colonise isolated islands and yet are found there in relatively large numbers, there must be some circumstance which especially favours both the page 17survival and diversification of the relatively few dioecious colonisers and the evolution of dioecious from hermaphrodite island species. This implies that dioecism confers some special advantage in the isolated island situation. It has been suggested that this advantage results from the obligate outcrossing of dioecious species, which brings about an increase in variability. Variable species are more likely to be successful on isolated islands as they are in a better position to take advantage of the unoccupied habitats available, and more likely to survive drastic environmental changes such as those resulting from the succession of glacials and interglacials in recent geological time. On a continent stretching from high to low latitudes, species can survive such fluctuations by migrating with their preferred climates as these climates move towards and away from the equator. On an isolated island, this option is greatly restricted, so with a drastic environmental change, a greater proportion of relatively invariable inbreeding species will become extinct than of more variable outcrossing species, which are better able to adapt to change.