Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Is New Zealand vegetation really 'problematic'? Dansereau's puzzles revisited.

Abstract

Over four decades ago, Pierre Dansereau, the noted North American ecologist, proposed six features of New Zealand vegetation as being problematic or unusual in a global context. We examine his propositions in the light of current ecological knowledge to determine whether or not these can still be considered unusual characteristics of New Zealand vegetation. (1) 'Climatic change is still progressing' resulting in disequilibrium between species' distributions and the present climate. New data and methods of analysis now available have removed the impression that Dansereau gained of imprecise zonation, unclear vegetation/climate relations and missing vegetation types. Communities cited as having regeneration failure can now be seen as even-aged stands that developed after major disturbance, although there are other, also non-climatic, explanations. However, the cause of the Westland 'Nothofagus gap' has become more, rather than less, controversial. (2) 'Continuity of community composition defies classification' and 'Very few New Zealand associations have faithful species' are correct observations, but perhaps equally true of vegetation elsewhere. Dansereau's assertion of low species richness in New Zealand is not supported by the comparative data available. (3) 'Lack of intolerant [i.e. mid-seral] trees...' is not evident with newer information. The order of species in succession, seen as unclear by Dansereau, has been determined by a range of approaches, largely confirming each other. (4) 'Discrepancies of form and function...' in divaricate shrubs and widespread heteroblasty are still controversial, with many more explanations. Several abiotic explanations have failed to stand up to investigation. Explanations in terms of herbivory have been well supported, although the extinction of the large avian herbivores makes certainty impossible. (5) 'Incidence of hybridization...' remains problematic. We do not know whether the incidence is unusually high, as Dansereau alleged, but the limited comparative data available suggest not. (6) The 'overwhelming... competing power of exotics' is strongly context dependent. They are prominent in many non-forest habitats. It seems that they are drivers of the vegetation change in some habitats, yet passengers after disturbance in others. Invasions can be slow, and may still be very incomplete in some ecosystem types. Whether exotics will eventually take over in most communities, or whether the native species will 'laugh them to scorn' as Cockayne suggested, only time will tell. In conclusion, some aspects of New Zealand's vegetation seem less unusual with increased knowledge, but others remain 'problems'.