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A dated phylogeny shows Plio-Pleistocene climates spurred evolution of antibrowsing defences in the New Zealand flora

Some plant traits may be legacies of coevolution with extinct megafauna. One example is the convergent evolution of ‘divaricate’ cage architectures in many New Zealand lineages, interpreted as a response to recently extinct flightless avian browsers whose ancestors arrived during the Paleogene period. Although experiments have confirmed that divaricate habit deters extant browsers, its abundance on frosty, droughty sites appears consistent with an earlier interpretation as a response to cold, dry Plio-Pleistocene climates. We used 45 protein-coding sequences from plastid genomes to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the divaricate habit in extant New Zealand lineages. Our dated phylogeny of 215 species included 91% of New Zealand eudicot divaricate species. We show that 86% of extant divaricate plants diverged from non-divaricate sisters within the last 5 Ma, implicating Plio-Pleistocene climates in the proliferation of cage architectures in New Zealand. Our results, combined with other recent findings, are consistent with the synthetic hypothesis that the browser-deterrent effect of cage architectures was strongly selected only when Plio-Pleistocene climatic constraints prevented woody plants from growing quickly out of reach of browsers. This is consistent with the abundance of cage architectures in other regions where plant growth is restricted by aridity or short frost-free periods.
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