The exceptional biodiversity of Oceania

Inflorescence of Kingia australis, which is endemic to Southwest Australia. Picture: Gunnar Keppel

The islands of the South Pacific are exceptional places, as are the island of New Guinea and Australia. They constitute the region of Oceania, one of the most diverse regions in the world. In addition to the highly diverse island of New Guinea, Oceania includes 6 biodiversity hotspots (East Melanesian Islands, Forests of East Australia, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Polynesia-Micronesia and Southwest Australia) and the Coral triangle (the most diverse marine region in the world).

The biodiversity in the region is stunning, and much of that is due to isolation. Australia is the only continent to have marsupials, such as kangaroos and koalas, and monotremes, such as the platypus. It also has the oldest rain forests in the world and possibly the most stunning exemplar of plant diversity in the world, Southwest Australia. New Zealand is well known for the tuatara and the now extinct moas. The diversity of the island of New Guinea is exceptional. For example, about 10% of all orchid species in the world occur on this island. New Caledonia is another known hub of unique diversity, which includes the only parasitic conifer in the world, Parasitaxus ustus, and Amborella trichopoda, the species considered basal to all other flowering plants. However, other islands in the South Pacific harbour many unique species as well. For example, Fiji and Tonga are the only places where iguanas can be found outside the Americas.

However, Oceania has also lost considerable biodiversity. In addition to the moas of New Zealand, islands in the Pacific have likely lost hundreds of bird species as a result of being colonized humans, who brought with them new threats (such as rats) and hunted them for food. Australia has the worst record of mammal extinction in the world and an increasing number of organisms in the Pacific are considered to be threatened with extinction. Habitat destruction and invasive species remain the biggest threat to Oceania’s biodiversity, with climate change providing additional pressure. I hope that this web page will help raise awareness about the beauty and uniqueness of the biota of Oceania, and highlight problems and success stories about conservation in the region.

 

Further reading:

de Vogel E, Howcroft N & Bandisch W (webpage) Orchids of New Guinea. http://www.orchidsnewguinea.com/

Keppel G, Morrison C, Meyer J-Y & Boehmer HJ (2014) Isolated and vulnerable: the history and future of Pacific Island terrestrial biodiversity. Pacific Conservation Biology 20:136-145.

Wardell-Johnson GW, Keppel G & Sander J (2011) Climate change impacts on the terrestrial biodiversity and carbon stocks of Oceania. Pacific Conservation Biology 17:220-240.

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