Biodiversity Conservation and Phylogenetic Systematics

Volume 14 of the series Topics in Biodiversity and Conservation pp 81-97

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

  • Steven A. TrewickAffiliated withEcology Group, Institute of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University Email author 
  • , Mary Morgan-RichardsAffiliated withEcology Group, Institute of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University


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.


Evolutionary potential Kākāpō Tuatara Sponges Microbiomes