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New Zealand's ecological past unravelled

9 September 2005

Grants help researchers unravel New Zealand's ecological past

Funding for three research projects will help uncover secrets of New Zealand's environmental history and early settlement. Landcare Research has made three successful proposals for the 2005 Marsden Funding, administered by the national science academy, the Royal Society.

The funding is highly contested, and winning a grant is commonly viewed as the pinnacle of science excellence in New Zealand. The three projects are focussed on forests and fungi. The Paradox of Maori settlement and widespread forest clearance, led by Dr Matt McGlone, examines how and why Maori in the 13th Century cleared so much forest.

"New Zealand is unusual internationally in this," Dr McGlone says. "A relatively small number of Maori shortly after their arrival in the 13th century cleared about 40% of the original forest cover - one of the most rapid and complete landscape transformations anywhere in the world.

Paradoxically, the extent of forest loss shows no clear relationship with population density. In other words, the forest clearance was not necessarily where the settlements were. "It is of historical importance to find out if the forests were destroyed through accidental fire, or multiple repeated fires.

The findings will teach us more about land management by Maori, the vulnerability of our forests, and whether drought episodes in our past have made them more susceptible to fire. "Our theory is that early Maori deliberately cleared forest, as open landscapes offered more food resources and better utilisation of swamp land."

Another project, Ice-Age Refugia in New Zealand, led by Dr Thomas Buckley, will advance our knowledge on the effects of environmental change on our native biodiversity. The Ice Ages caused massive changes in the distribution and composition of ecological communities. During the Last Glacial Maximum, much of New Zealand was replaced with a tundra-like environment.

However, it is not clear if the forest survived only in large patches known as refugia in the North Island and northern South Island, or if small refugia were scattered throughout the South Island. The aim of this research programme is to reconstruct the environment of the South Island during the LGM, and test hypotheses on the response of forest insect fauna to glacial and climatic cycling.

The third project, Assembly History as a regulator of ecosystem functioning, focuses on native wood-decaying fungi and nutrient cycling. Assembly History is the sequence and timing in which colonising species join an ecological community, which then affects how that ecosystem functions.

Dr Tadashi Fukami is leading a project testing wood decay fungal communities, to develop a model of this complex process. This will help us better understand decomposition processes in our native forests, and will contribute to our knowledge of how ecosystems in general work.

Landcare Research was the most successful of the nine CRIs in its Marsden applications this year. Landcare Research research manager Dr David Penman says this success is a measure of the excellence of the company's scientists and research.

ENDS

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