Diatom communities in New Zealand subalpine mire pools: distribution, ecology and taxonomy of endemic and cosmopolitan taxa
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Mire pools – shallow water-bodies in peat-forming wetlands – are a characteristic feature of New Zealand’s subalpine and alpine landscapes (>1000 m a.s.l.), yet have been the subject of few biological studies to date, particularly of their algal communities. This research focuses on these subalpine systems, and on their diatom communities. Despite the established paradigm of ubiquitous dispersal in micro-organisms, recent taxonomic studies have confirmed a distinctive endemic component in the freshwater diatom flora of the New Zealand / Tasmania / East Australian region. In this study, I examined benthic diatom communities from >320 freshwater sites throughout New Zealand and showed that over 20% of species may be confined to this region. The endemic diatom species had highest densities in stable, unproductive environments, particularly in high-altitude mire pools and tarns. In most cases, non-endemic taxa coexisted with endemic species. This raised questions about (1) the special characteristics of mire pools and tarns (since endemism might be expected in areas that have unique environmental characteristics), and (2) the mechanisms that have allowed existing endemic taxa to withstand displacement by common cosmopolitan taxa, which, by definition, are successful colonisers. I addressed these questions using two years of data from four subalpine mire pools (Bealey Spur wetland, near Arthur’s Pass, South Island). Physico-chemical data showed that water chemistry of these pools may differ from that of many Northern Hemisphere mire systems with respect to the relationship between pH and dissolved ions (especially calcium). This may be due to a combination of high pH rainfall, high rainfall quantities that limit the acidification effects of humic substances, and possibly vegetation differences. Therefore, some endemic taxa may be confined to these habitats because of the characteristic properties of the pools. I investigated the effects of disturbances in these stable environments. In the largest pool endemic species were shown to decline as wind-induced substrate disturbance increased. Endemic species also declined in two pools following small-scale experimental substrate disturbances. In all cases, non-endemic species remained unchanged. The distinctive species Eunophora cf. oberonica was responsible for much of the observed decline in endemic species abundances, which was evidently due to destruction of their specialised habitat within the cyanobacterial mats that made up the pool substrates. I explained pool-specific responses of diatom communities to disturbances by drawing on recent theory of invasibility as an intrinsic environmental property. I further investigated species coexistence by examining several general patterns of interspecific coexistence described for macroscopic organisms (e.g., abundance – occupancy, abundance – persistence). Patterns in mire-pool diatom communities were generally similar to those in larger organisms, and did not differ with respect to geographical range size (endemics vs. non-endemics), except at the scale of single pools. At this scale, endemic taxa, in particular E. cf. oberonica, can persist as dominant species. All the community analyses were underpinned by detailed taxonomic studies, from which I assessed over 40% of the more common species in the pools to be either endemic or likely to be endemic. Two species occurring in the study area are formally described as new species. Overall, this work highlights the vulnerability of this hidden component of New Zealand’s biodiversity to disturbances and environmental changes.