Thumbnail Image

Macroclimate and topography interact to influence the abundance of divaricate plants in New Zealand

The abundance of the divaricate growth form in New Zealand has been interpreted as either (a) the response of an isolated flora to cool, dry, Plio-Pleistocene climates; or (b) a defense against large browsing birds (moa) that were hunted to extinction shortly after human arrival during the last millennium. We used patterns of divaricate plant abundance across present-day landscapes to test a novel synthetic hypothesis: that the divaricate form is of most value to plants on fertile soils that attract herbivores, on sites where climatic constraints prevent plants from quickly growing out of the browse zone. This hypothesis predicts that divaricate species should be most abundant on terraces (landforms that are both fertile and frost-prone) in regions that are cold and dry, and should be scarce across all topographic positions in the warmest (largely frost-free) regions. To address our hypothesis, we first tested the influence of topography on frost regimes and nutrient levels by measuring temperatures and soil total C, N, and P at four standard topographic positions at five localities differing widely in macroclimate. We then extracted a dataset of 236 surveys comprising 9,877 relevé plots from the New Zealand National Vegetation Survey databank. We calculated the proportion of arborescent species with a divaricate growth form and the proportion of total arborescentcover contributed by divaricates on each plot; we then fitted linear mixed-effect models predicting these response variables as functions of topographic position and climate. The number of frosts recorded averaged <1 yr–1 at the warmest of the five sites studied, to >60 yr–1 on all topographic positions at the coldest site. Terraces were subject to more frequent and harder frosts than any other topographic position. Topography had no significant influence on total N or C:N, but total P was higher on terraces and in gullies than on faces or ridges. Frost-free period was the dominant influence on both species representation and cover of divaricate plants throughout the country. The effect of topography was also significant, but weaker. The effect of frost-free period was stronger on sites with water deficits than on sites where precipitation exceeded evapotranspiration. Divaricates made their largest contributions on terraces in cold, dry regions; as predicted, they were scarce on all topographic positions on sites with frost-free periods >300 days. Our hypothesis was generally supported, although the effect of topography on divaricate abundance was not as strong as some previous studies led us to expect. Divaricates made their largest contributions to arborescent species richness and cover on sites where climatic restrictions on growth coincide with relatively high nutrient availability. The contemporary distribution of the divaricate form across New Zealand landscapes thus appears to be reasonably well explained by the hypothesized interaction of climate and fertility-mediated browsing, although experiments may provide more conclusive tests of this hypothesis.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Frontiers Media SA
© 2020 Lusk, Wiser and Laughlin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.