Plant and Soil

, Volume 322, Issue 1–2, pp 49–86 | Cite as

OCBIL theory: towards an integrated understanding of the evolution, ecology and conservation of biodiversity on old, climatically buffered, infertile landscapes

  • Stephen D. HopperEmail author
Review Article


OCBIL theory aims to develop an integrated series of hypotheses explaining the evolution and ecology of, and best conservation practices for, biota on very old, climatically buffered, infertile landscapes (OCBILs). Conventional theory for ecology and evolutionary and conservation biology has developed primarily from data on species and communities from young, often disturbed, fertile landscapes (YODFELs), mainly in the Northern Hemisphere. OCBILs are rare, but are prominent in the Southwest Australian Floristic Region, South Africa’s Greater Cape, and Venezuela’s Pantepui Highlands. They may have been more common globally before Pleistocene glaciations. Based on the premise that natural selection has favoured limited dispersability of sedentary organisms, OCBILs should have elevated persistence of lineages (Gondwanan Heritage Hypothesis) and long-lived individuals (Ultimate Self Hypothesis), high numbers of localised rare endemics and strongly differentiated population systems. To counter such natural fragmentation and inbreeding due to small population size, ecological, cytogenetic and genetic mechanisms selecting for the retention of heterozygosity should feature (the James Effect). The climatic stability of OCBILs should be paralleled by persistence of adjacent semi-arid areas, conducive to speciation (Semiarid Cradle Hypothesis). Special nutritional and other biological traits associated with coping with infertile lands should be evident, accentuated in plants, for example, through water-foraging strategies, symbioses, carnivory, pollination and parasitism. The uniquely flat landscapes of southwestern Australia have had prolonged presence of saline lakes along palaeoriver systems favouring evolution of accentuated tolerance to salinity. Lastly, unusual resiliences and vulnerabilities might be evident among OCBIL organisms, such as enhanced abilities to persist in small fragmented populations but great susceptibility to major soil disturbances. In those places where it is most pertinent, OCBIL theory hopefully lays a foundation for future research and for better informed conservation management.


YODFEL James Effect Ultimate Self Gondwanan Heritage Dispersability Endemism Heterozygosity Mineral nutrition Salinity Speciation Southwest Australia Greater Cape Pantepui Old landscapes Infertile soils Climate Rare species Conservation Evolution 



This paper is the culmination of four decades of wondering about and exploring the exceptionally rich endemic biota of the Southwest Australian Floristic Region and, more recently, that of the Greater Cape. I owe much to my teachers, especially Sid James, Bert Main, Hugh Paterson, George Seddon, Rowl Twidale and the many research collaborators, students and friends who have so warmly discussed ideas and pursued lines of research with me that collectively led to the present paper. I owe a special thanks to colleagues in South Africa who taught a complete novice so much in the field about the world’s richest temperate flora—John Manning, John Rourke, Richard Cowling, Dee Snijman, Colin Paterson-Jones, Koos Roux, Peter Goldblatt and others. My understanding of YODFEL biota in the Northern Hemisphere similarly has been enhanced through the privilege of working wih fine colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and with its global collaborators. The realisation that things were different in the Southwest Australian Floristic Region and Greater Cape compared to what was mainstream in the literature from the Northern Hemisphere and eastern Australia was slow in coming (see Hopper (1979) for an early synthesis), but benefited from a degree of thinking and field exploration that few have the luxury or time to enjoy in this increasingly frenetic world. The ideas developed embryonically while I was a postgraduate student at The University of Western Australia, and then during employment with the Western Australian Herbarium, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Conservation and Land Management, Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority, and The University of Western Australia. It was over two years (2004–2006) at the last institution that the concepts of OCBILs and YODFELs crystallised, and I was able to present to several audiences seminars underpinning the present paper. I am grateful for invitations to deliver addresses on these ideas subsequently in 2007 at the 3rd Global Botanic Gardens Congress in Wuhan, China, at the Linnean Society’s Tercentenary celebratory conference in London on Unlocking the Past—Linnaean Collections past, present and future, at The Botanical Society of America’s Botany 2007 conference in Chicago, and at MEDECOS 2007 in Perth. In 2008, aspects of this paper were included in lectures on Haemodoraceae delivered to the Cape Biota Symposium at Drakensville, Kwa-zulu Natal, on OCBIL theory at the University of Texas at Austin, and in the Nancy T. Burbidge Memorial Lecture (entitled Old Australian landscapes yield new perspectives on biodiversity evolution and conservation) to the Australian Systematic Botany Society’s National Conference in Adelaide. In 2009 the theory was presented in a lecture to the University of Vienna’s Institute of Biodiversity. I have benefitted from many discussions with colleagues at these venues. Hans Lambers, Colin Yates, Mark Chase, Don Bradshaw, Pieter Poot, Rhian Smith and ten anonymous referees for three journals commented on previous drafts and materially helped improve the final paper. Peggy Fiedler’s thorough editing and critique were especially valuable. In having to consider such wide and generous input, the responsibility for ideas published herein nevertheless is mine alone.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.DirectorateRoyal Botanic Gardens, KewRichmondUK
  2. 2.School of Plant BiologyThe University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia

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