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

Angiosperm Forest Dominance

Angiosperm Forest Dominance

According to a more dramatic interpretation of the dynamics of the New Zealand conifer broadleaf forest put forward by Robbins,71 it is not in fact one forest, but two in competition — one comprising the conifers and the other the flowering trees. The conifers belong to a more ancient and less specialised group of plants, which along with ferns and their allies formed forests in New Zealand before flowering plants became dominant throughout the world. Following the establishment of the more specialised flowering trees in New Zealand the less specialised conifers, he suggests, have been on the road to extinction. page 109Their present poor regeneration is seen as a reflection of this trend. Only where raw new soil conditions, unsuitable for most flowering trees, are brought about by volcanism or glaciation can the conifers still form dense forests and even these give way to flowering trees as more mature soils develop.

The validity of this interpretation can be questioned. Firstly, conifers have coexisted with angiosperms in New Zealand for 100 million years, so it seems unlikely that they will disappear for some time to come. Secondly, if the conifers are doomed to extinction because they are more ancient and less specialised, wouldn't this be even more true for the ferns, an older and less specialised group than the conifers? In fact ferns are abundant in New Zealand forests and give no cause for any belief that they are on the road to extinction. The probable truth of the matter is that when a more specialised plant or animal group becomes dominant throughout the world, many members of the preceding dominant group become extinct; but there is no reason why the survivors could not evolve new forms suited to the changed conditions. This would certainly appear to be true for the ferns as most forest ferns belong to an advanced group, which came into existence at about the same time as the now dominant angiosperms and diversified with them. The tree ferns and filmy ferns are more ancient groups but they give every indication of being permanent components of the conifer broadleaf forests.

As far as conifers are concerned New Zealand is not the only place where apparently inadequate regeneration in mature forests has been noted. It has been observed in forests of Melanesia with species of Araucaria72 and Agathis,73 and similar extinction hypotheses have been proposed. Studies in both areas have been carried out to test the validity of these hypotheses and they have all concluded that the conifers concerned have a permanent role in the forests as a result of recurring natural disturbances. In New Zealand a similar investigation74 has been made into the role of the mountain cedar (Libocedrus bidwillii) in a number of montane rain forests in the South Island and the same conclusion has been drawn.

This seems to suggest then that the failure of emergent conifers (as indeed of many tropical angiosperm emergents75,76) to regenerate under a dense canopy is a normal feature of rain forest development, and that special climatic and evolutionary hypotheses are unnecessary.