Decline of a biome: evolution, contraction, fragmentation, extinction and invasion of the Australian mesic zone biota.
Aim: The mesic biome, encompassing both rain forest and open sclerophyllous forests, is central to understanding the evolution of Australia's terrestrial biota and has long been considered the ancestral biome of the continent. Our aims are to review and refine key hypotheses derived from palaeoclimatic data and the fossil record that are critical to understanding the evolution of the Australian mesic biota. We examine predictions arising from these hypotheses using available molecular phylogenetic and phylogeographical data. In doing so, we increase understanding of the mesic biota and highlight data deficiencies and fruitful areas for future research. Location: The mesic biome of Australia, along the eastern coast of Australia, and in the south-east and south-west, including its rain forest and sclerophyllous, often eucalypt-dominated, habitats. Methods: We derived five hypotheses based on palaeoclimatic and fossil data regarding the evolution of the Australian mesic biota, particularly as it relates to the mesic biome. We evaluated predictions formulated from these hypotheses using suitable molecular phylogenies of terrestrial plants and animals and freshwater invertebrates. Results: There was support for the ancestral position of mesic habitat in most clades, with support for rain forest habitat ancestry in some groups, while evidence of ancestry in mesic sclerophyllous habitats was also demonstrated for some plants and herpetofauna. Contraction of mesic habitats has led to extinction of numerous lineages in many clades and this is particularly evident in the rain forest component. Species richness was generally higher in sclerophyllous clades than in rain forest clades, probably due to higher rates of net speciation in the former and extinction in the latter. Although extinction has been prominent in rain forest communities, tropical rain forests appear to have experienced extensive immigration from northern neighbours. Pleistocene climatic oscillations have left genetic signatures at multiple levels of divergence and with complex geographical structuring, even in areas with low topographical relief and few obvious geographical barriers. Main conclusions: Our review confirms long-held views of the ancestral position of the Australian mesic biome but also reveals new insights into the complexity of the processes of contraction, fragmentation, extinction and invasion during the evolution of this biome.