A comparison of the stable isotopic ecology of eastern, western, and pre-human forest ecosystems in the South Island of New Zealand
Thesis DisciplineEnvironmental Sciences
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Science
New Zealand forests have been reduced and degraded by gross removal, logging, and the effects of mammals introduced by Polynesian and European settlers. These changes increase the value of the remaining forests, so information on the effects of these disturbances will be useful to inform the management of forest protection. Integrated measurements of C and N cycling within forests can be obtained using foliar stable isotope ratios, which may detect differences between forests resulting from natural or anthropogenic disturbances. This thesis characterises the stable isotopic composition distribution and likely drivers of isotopic variation of vegetation in several central South Island forests, and provides a baseline for future ecological New Zealand studies of present and pre-human vegetation. The largest detected stable isotope variation in modern leaf material was that of δ15N values between the eastern and western podocarp-broadleaf forests. This variation was probably controlled by the lower soil N availability associated with the high rainfall of western forests causing low δ15N values (-8.5 ± 3.5 ‰) relative to an eastern forest (+1.6 ± 1.3 ‰) and global temperate forests (average -2.8 ± 2.0 ‰ (Martinelli et al. 1999)). The significant but slightly higher mean δ15N (0.6 ‰) of a historically selectively logged forest (Saltwater Forest) in comparison to the mean in an unlogged forest (Okarito Forest), on the West Coast, could be attributed to either alteration to N cycling from logging, site differences in topography, or local soil N differences between the forests. Although δ13C showed no significant geographical variation, the well-described ‘canopy effect’ was observed in all modern forests, manifested as a positive covariation between δ13C and vegetation height. Similarly, large taxon-specific differences were observed between δ15N and δ13C values in both modern and fossil leaves. Well-preserved fossil leaves, from sediments c. 4500 years B.P in Pyramid Valley, North Canterbury, had higher δ13C (4.2 ‰) and δ15N (2.5 ‰) values than modern vegetation from Riccarton Bush, Christchurch. The difference between ecosystems spanning several millennia probably reflects ecosystem-scale changes in C and N cycling within New Zealand forests following human arrival, particularly from the degradation caused by invasive animals.