Phylogenetics and Conservation in New Zealand: The Long and the Short of It

Steven A. Trewick and Mary Morgan-Richards

Abstract Phylogenetic trees represent the evolutionary relationships of taxa at the branch tips. Although long branches in a tree can arise because a taxon has no close relatives, they can also result from other processes; care is needed when inferences are made from the shape of a phylogeny. New Zealand has many endangered species and some biologists infer high evolutionary distinctiveness of these endemics. Although there is evidence that some New Zealand birds are phylogenetically distinct using them as a calibration of continental drift vicariance has been misleading. In reptiles, extensive conservation resources have been devoted to management of tuatara, in part due to their phylogenetic distinctiveness as sister to all lizards and snakes. The lack of extant diversity in the tuatara lineage could indicate that this line will contribute little to biodiversity in the future, in contrast to New Zealand squamates that have radiated to occupy diverse habitats. All life on earth has a common ancestor so phylogenetic distinctiveness of any organism must be viewed in the context of the whole. A logical extension of building conservation strategy this way is a focus on microscopic life because microbes encompass far more diversity than do eukaryotes. Furthermore, this diversity can be captured in microbiomes such as soils and marine sponges that include many species and many phyla. To achieve true phylogenetic representation of life on earth requires conservation of ecosystems. Although large animals and plants are traditionally chosen as flagship species, a more impartial approach might focus on microbes that underpin ecosystem function.

Keywords Evolutionary potential • Kākāpō • Tuatara • Sponges • Microbiomes


Variously described as a diversity hotspot, Gondwanan remnant and paradise lost to invasive species (e.g. Daugherty et al. 1993; Gibbs 2006; Lee et al. 2006), New Zealand presents enormous challenges for conservation (DOC 2000). Key is the question of how to prioritise management effort and funding (e.g. Cullen 2012; Walker et al. 2012) and amongst the available tools for prioritisation is phylogenetics (Margules and Pressey 2000; Purvis et al. 2005; Rolland et al. 2011). Here we consider just two aspects of phylogeny in conservation with reference to New Zealand biota. First we examine the implications of long branches in phylogenetic trees and the biological information they might contain. We highlight the role of taxon sampling in the identification of long branches and the biological significance of phylogenetic distinctiveness. We then consider a broader view of phylogenetic diversity including microorganisms that are rarely considered in conservation planning (Nee 2004a, b). As the fountain of phylogenetic diversity, microbial diversity, which also underpins ecological diversity and ecosystem function, provides scaling for conservation that is not influenced by size, scarcity and marketable appeal. We argue that the logical extension of a strict application of conservation prioritisation using phylogenetic distinctiveness must result in a focus on unicellular organisms that are not traditionally emphasised. Using data from marine sponges we provide an example of a micro-environment that is rich in phylogenetic diversity. Diversity-rich microbiomes may be the much-needed foci for conservation of higher order biodiversity.

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