J Syst Evol ›› 2020, Vol. 58 ›› Issue (6): 751-766.DOI: 10.1111/jse.12673

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The importance of historical ecology for interpreting evolutionary processes in plants of oceanic islands

Tod F. Stuessy1,2*   

  1. 1 Herbarium and Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, The Ohio State University, 1315 Kinnear Road Columbus, OH 43212, USA
    2 Department of Botany and Biodiversity Research, University of Vienna, Rennweg 14, Vienna A‐1300, Austria
  • Received:2020-04-21 Accepted:2020-08-06 Online:2020-08-14 Published:2020-11-01


Oceanic islands and archipelagos are natural laboratories for investigating patterns and processes of evolution. Islands change with the course of time, resulting in a dynamic ontogeny over millions of years. The combined forces of tectonic plate subsidence and erosion from waves, wind, and rainwater bring about substantial geomorphological change over millions of years, until islands eventually disappear under the sea. Added to these long‐term natural changes to the environment of the islands are the changes caused by human activities in recent centuries. After humans reach a previously unpopulated island, they utilize the natural resources for their own survival, cutting forests for making houses, boats, and firewood. The size of the human population and the length of time on the island determine the degree of environmental impact. Evolutionary processes in plants of oceanic islands take place during ontogeny of the islands, resulting in population divergence, speciation, and hybridization. Due to the dramatic alterations suffered by many islands over millions of years, the present patterns of distribution and ecology of species within endemic groups may have little to do with the patterns when the species originated. Understanding these environmental changes is fundamental to infer a founder effect, reasons for levels of genetic variation within and among populations, and modes of speciation. Special caution must be exercised while making comparisons between groups located on islands of different geological ages and that have endured differing environmental modifications from humans. Examples are provided from the Juan Fernández Archipelago and Lord Howe Island.

Key words: founder effect, Howea, human impact, island ontogeny, Juan Fernández Archipelago, Lord Howe Island, sympatric speciation, vegetation