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Abstract Aim To describe New Zealand’s historical terrestrial biogeography and place this history in a wider Southern Hemisphere context. Location New Zealand. Methods The analysis is based primarily on literature on the distributions and relationships of New Zealand’s terrestrial flora and fauna. Results New Zealand is shown to have a biota that has broad relationships, primarily around the cool Southern Hemisphere, as well as with New Caledonia to the north. There are hints of ancient Gondwanan taxa, although the long-argued predominance of taxa derived by vicariant processes, driven by plate tectonics and the fragmentation of Gondwana, is no longer accepted as a principal explanation of the biota’s origins and relationships. Main conclusions Most of the terrestrial New Zealand flora and fauna has clearly arrived in New Zealand much more recently than the postulated separation of New Zealand from Gondwana, dated at c. 80 Ma. There is a view that New Zealand may have disappeared completely beneath the sea in the early Cenozoic, and acceptance of this would mean derivation of the entire biota by transoceanic dispersal. However, there are elements in the biota that seem to have broad distributions that date back to Gondwanan times, and also some that are thought unlikely to have been able to disperse to New Zealand across ocean gaps, especially freshwater organisms. Very strong connections to the biota of Australia, rather than to South America, are inconsistent with the timing of New Zealand’s ancient and early separation from Gondwana and seem likely to have resulted from dispersal.